Being able to distinguish between a good pain and a not-so-good pain is critically important for all of us who engage in regular vigorous exercise as part of a healthy lifestyle. Even highly trained athletes such as those on high school and college teams, dancers, and those training for long distance races or multisport events may have difficulty knowing when they are able to work through some pain and discomfort verses needing to pay attention to a real injury.
Being able to accurately assess the difference between these two sets of circumstances is crucial to your success and short- and long-term outcomes. An overlooked injury will get worse and, ultimately, the type and amount of treatment required will be more serious and the recovery time considerably prolonged.
Of course, pain itself does not necessarily mean stopping what you’re doing. Everyone who does strength training knows that performing the last couple of reps with heavier weights often involves some form of discomfort — occasionally intense discomfort. But in order to progress, it’s important to tolerate and work through the discomfort, and even pain, associated with temporary muscle fatigue and failure. Similarly, those doing interval types of cardiorespiratory training may experience the intense pain of anaerobic fatigue toward the end of a very fast sprint. But such pain is expected and temporary, and being able to work through such pain represents the training benefit. Working through the pain implies that your strength and endurance are improving. However, the blithe philosophy of “no pain, no gain” needs to be consistently contrasted with the intelligent ability to clearly acknowledge when the experienced pain represents a problem.1
How are you able to recognize when the pain you’re experiencing is a problem? First, the pain you feel during intense effort is temporary and should subside fairly quickly as you move on to your next exercise activity. In contrast, pain that persists or increases during a workout or training session is probably not a good thing. If you continue to feel that pain throughout the course of the day and into the next day, then you should likely interpret that pain as an injury. In this context, it’s important to distinguish the pain of an injury from that of normal muscle soreness. Normal muscle soreness is generalized, not local. You feel such soreness in the entire muscle, rather than in a specific spot. Additionally, muscle soreness resolves within 24 to 48 hours with most usually resolving within a day. Pain that persists beyond 48 hours should be reasonably interpreted as an injury.
Importantly, not all injuries require treatment. Less severe injuries such as mild muscle strains may heal on their own with appropriate rest. In general, any injury that persists beyond seven days should be evaluated by a health care professional. Your family chiropractor will be able to accurately assess your health problem and answer questions regarding the nature of the injury and the recommended course of care.2,3
1Gisselman AS, et al: Musculoskeletal overuse injuries and heart rate variability: Is there a link? Med Hypotheses 87:1-7, 2016
2Faizullin I, Faizullina E: Effects of balance training on post-sprained ankle joint instability. Int J Risk Saf Med 2015;27 Suppl 1:S99-S101. doi: 10.3233/JRS-150707
3Cools AM, et al: Evidence-based rehabilitation of athletes with glenohumeral instability. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc 24(2):382-389, 2016