Should You Exercise With an Injury?

Working Around Your Injury

Getty Images/

If you're an exerciser, it will probably happen to you; that morning when you start your jog and feel a sharp pain in your knee, or you bend down to pick up that weight and end up pulling a muscle you didn't even know you had.

As much as we try to avoid injury, it will happen to most of us, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to ride the couch while your injury heals.  With a little planning and common sense, you can still keep up some kind of routine as your injury heals.

  Your first step is, of course, is to see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment and you'll want to talk to the doctor about how you can stay moving without making things worse.

Basic Rules of Exercising With an Injury

1. Talk to your doctor about how to work around your injury

Your doctor may tell you to avoid your usual cardio or lower body strength routines if you, say, have a knee or foot injury.  But, what about working your upper body?  Sit down with your workout routine and figure out how you can exercise while seated or laying down so as not to put pressure on the injured joint or muscle. If you have an upper body injury, such as your shoulder or elbow, why not concentrate on lower body exercises? You can modify by doing exercises that don't involve holding weights in your hands or on your shoulders, and simply stick with machines that don't involve your upper body. Ask your doctor about continuing a resistance program that can help you heal while staying strong.

2. Never work through the pain

This seems simple but, if you're anything like me, you tend to exercise even when your body is telling you to stop. Even if you're following an exercise plan recommended by your doctor, if you feel any pain in the joints or anywhere else, stop. You may be able to move on to a different exercise that doesn't hurt, or you may have to stop altogether.

Either way, learning to listen to your body is key to staying injury- and pain-free.

3. Follow Your Doctor's Advice

If you're determined to exercise, ask your doctor for a list of activities you can do to stay active without injuring yourself further. He or she may be able to recommend a physical therapist to help you determine what exercises you can do to both heal your injury and strengthen the rest of your body.  If you do see a physical therapist, do the exercises they give you.  I can't tell you how many clients don't follow through with their exercises and their injury just goes on and on.  Listen to the experts and your healing will go faster.

4. Work on ways to prevent further injuries

If you're injured, this is a great time to learn how to avoid more injuries in the future.   A few simple ways:

  • Maintain flexibility and balance - Tight muscles can cause imbalances in your body that could lead to injuries. For example, if your quadriceps (front of the leg) are stronger than your hamstrings (back of the leg), you risk a strain or even a rupture of your hamstrings.
  • Avoid overtraining - When your muscles are tired, they can't support and protect your ligaments and tendons, which can lead to injuries.  Giving yourself regular rest and recovery days can help your body heal and keep you healthy and fit.
  • Work on strengthening your entire body - To fortify yourself even more against injuries, make sure you incorporate regular weight training into your weekly routine. Strengthening ALL of your muscle groups will reduce any muscle imbalances that may cause other muscles of your body to overcompensate for that weakness.

If you're like many exercisers, you tend to ignore the warning signs of a potentially serious injury. Elizabeth Quinn, About's expert Sports Medicine Guide, gives some tips on recognizing an injury. First, "[j]oint pain, particularly in the joints of the knee, ankle, elbow and wrist, should never be ignored." This type of pain typically originates from the joint rather than the muscle and may be a sign of something serious.

Another warning sign is tenderness at a specific point in the body. Elizabeth warns that "If you can elicit pain at a specific point in a bone, muscle or joint, by pressing your finger into it, you may have a significant injury."

Another symptom never to ignore is swelling. Swelling is always a sign of some type of injury. You can also experience swelling within the joint, which may be harder to see. If you do have swelling in the joint, your range of motion will be reduced and your joint may feel tight. Elizabeth recommends comparing both sides of the body. If one side acts differently than the other, you may have joint swelling. Finally, Elizabeth warns to never ignore numbness or tingling in your body. This may be a sign of nerve compression, which might be a prelude to a serious injury.

If you experience any of these symptoms your first step is to stop what you're doing and call your doctor.

Never work through the pain! Dealing with an injury right away may mean a little recovery time, but that's better than having a permanent condition. While waiting to get in to see your doctor, you can also start a little treatment on your own.

The usual treatment involves R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation).

All this means is that you should stop what you're doing and use a bandage to compress the injured area (which can help reduce swelling). Then put an ice pack on the boo boo for about 15 or 20 minutes at a time, making sure to give the injured area plenty of time to warm up between icing sessions. Then, elevate the area and make sure your significant other knows how bad it hurts. They should pamper you in your time of need by bringing you whatever you require at any given moment.

While an injury may not preclude you from exercise completely, there are times when exercise is the last thing you should be doing. Never exercise when:

  • You have a fever. Working out can cause your body temperature to rise even higher which could lead to heatstroke. A fever indicates your body is fighting an infection, so put all your energy towards resting and getting well.
  • You have a persistent cough. This could diminish your lung capacity and make breathing difficult, and could also indicate a respiratory infection.
  • You experience nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea which can result in dehydration. You should avoid exercise until you've completely rehydrated your body and the symptoms disappear.
  • You have a chronic or serious illness. Be sure to get your doctor's okay before you start any type of exercise program.

When to Exercise

If you're feeling puny, but don't have any symptoms as mentioned above, should you exercise? That's up to you. Here are a few cases where exercise may help rather than hurt:

  • Colds. If you don't have a fever, exercise is fine for simple colds. Research shows that people can typically exercise with the same effort when they have a cold as when they are healthy.
  • DOMS. Delayed onset of muscle soreness typically occurs after a new or very intense workout. While this type of soreness is considered an injury, it doesn't necessarily mean you can't exercise. In fact, exercise can actually make you feel better.
  • Stress. If your life is crazy and you can't find time to do everything you need to do, exercise may be last on your list of priorities. But, experts agree that exercise is one of the best remedies for stress. When you exercise, you produce, which induce feelings of well-being and relaxation. So, get moving!

    If this all seems confusing, just use your head and follow this simple rule: If you have symptoms from the neck up (like sneezing, stuffy nose, etc.), you can probably do a light workout. If your symptoms are below the neck (coughing, fever, muscle aches, or nausea), skip your workout and rest.

    Continue Reading