Less Serious Exercise Injuries: Do You Need to See a Physical Therapist?

13 January 2016
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You know that physical therapy is part of recovery when someone suffers from a major injury, like tearing a large muscle group or blowing out a knee. Physical therapy is also often needed after some surgeries, like a knee or hip replacement. However, if you're an active person and experience a minor injury during a workout, or even just during your daily routine, you might wonder if you need to see a doctor at all, let alone a physical therapist. Here are some guidelines to help you know when ice and rest at home won't cut it.

1. You're still in pain.

Pain is the body's way of telling you that something is wrong. If your foot aches after a run and the ache doesn't go away or starts to get worse even after a few days of taking it easy, it's time to get the injury assessed by a physical therapist. You might not need a cast, but you could need a correction in form and a structured exercise program to help your foot get literally (in the case of running) back on track. 

2. The pain comes back after rest.

If you have muscle strain or if you twisted something during soccer practice, resting the injury is the quickest way to heal so you can keep on training. Swelling might go down and pain may subside with rest. When you get back into your training regimen, however, the pain might come back. Recurring pain still indicates a persistent injury or inaccurate exercise techniques that repeatedly stress the injured area. It's best to see a physical therapist, because repeated strain can lead to stress fractures and more serious muscle injuries, which both take much longer to heal.

3. Over-the-counter medications don't help.

One of the easiest ways to control pain from minor injuries is to take anti-inflammatory pain medicine, like ibuprofen. However, if the pain from the injury does not go away with a normal dose of these pain meds, it's time to get your injury assessed by a professional. Minor injuries should not hurt so badly that they can't be controlled with over-the-counter medications. 

4. Dull pain turns sharp and lasts longer.

It's normal to have some dull aches and pains during and after a workout, but these should go away as you stretch, rest, and ice your tired muscles. If the dull pain starts to happen in the same place every time and takes longer to go away, it's a sign of an unseen, worsening injury. If dull pain turns sharp and shooting, it could indicate a stress fracture, which is an injury to your bone instead of your muscle. Stress fractures occur with repeated force to the same area of the body, usually when someone neglects cross-training or increases their activity level too quickly. They should be treated by a physical therapist to make sure the bone heals fully and to guide you through a proper training regimen as you start increasing your activity after treatment. 

5. Things aren't the same as they used to be.

As you work out, your body should change in good ways; you get stronger, faster, and leaner. However, you will learn about your body and how it reacts to exercise. These reactions will not change greatly. Be in tune with yourself and start looking for help from a physical therapist when

  • you suddenly aren't as flexible as you used to be. This is especially true if one arm or leg is significantly less mobile than the other. 
  • you can't keep proper form during your workout when you could before. This change is particularly dangerous, as it can lead to further injury.
  • you need to change your gait or routine in order to accommodate discomfort. 

For more information about physical therapy, contact a clinic in your area.