Coming back from an injury is never easy. And chances are, it’s happened to you at some point.
Maybe you thought you did some preventive work, but you still got injured. In my job, I see people on a daily basis who simply don’t understand the true mechanics of the body. But with even a basic knowledge of the way the body operates, injury prevention becomes a lot easier.
Let’s back it up a bit and start with the word pain.
Pain, which I define as intolerable sensation, is often seen as a symptom or a precursor to injury. Once you feel pain, you’re already pretty close to injury. In this case, I’m referring to cumulative injury.
There were probably earlier signs of dysfunction that you missed, so your body continues to send louder and louder signals until you listen. By the time you’re actually feeling pain, your body has already worked hard to get your attention and your nervous system is on high alert. It’s like a fire alarm going off within the body.
Once you’re in pain, there are many ways to heal it depending on the specific injury, and that is something that should be addressed with your health care provider.
But there are ways to prevent that acute, sharp pain from coming on in the first place.
There are two main reasons you get injured: Either something or someone causes the injury, or you cause the injury on your own.
An injury caused by an external factor is something like a car accident or maybe a collision with another player during a sports game. The onset of pain is usually immediate, and there isn’t any real way to prevent these kinds of injuries—except being more aware of your surroundings, but that doesn’t come with any guarantees.
The other major type of injury is something you cause on your own. It’s usually a cumulative injury, which accounts for the majority of cases I deal with on a daily basis. A cumulative injury has been built up over the course of weeks, months, and, oftentimes, years. Unlike an injury caused by external factors, you can actually prevent these!
The early symptoms are usually tightness, soreness, stiffness, popping, clicking, discomfort, and/or general dysfunction in a specific part of the body. These symptoms may be felt only in the morning or at night, and as they progress will be felt during activity and exercise until eventually pain develops. At this point, you’re a ticking time bomb and any movement can send you “over the edge” into injury. This is why people will do something as benign as bending over to tie their shoes and their back will “go out.”
So, what can you do?
Incorporating the proper mobility exercises and skill work into your workout routines will help ensure your body stays strong and flexible. This is the key to preventing injury. Anyone can just lift weights and run on a treadmill, but over time, micro-inefficiencies in your movement patterns will cause injury.
Having proper mobility means being able to move all your joints through their full range of motion. There are lots of ways to do this, but I’ve seen the best results using dynamic stretching on a daily basis. Skill work refers to gaining strength in our core stabilizing muscles to create a strong and healthy foundation for movement.
It also means having a healthy neuromuscular connection which is the “electrical system” in the body, sending commanding signals from the brain to the acting muscles. Without a healthy electrical system, your muscles don’t know how to fire properly and will eventually “shut off,” causing weakness and, eventually, pain.
A very common complaint many people have is lower back pain. A typical case I’ll see is someone who works at a desk and exercises three to five times per week and is experiencing a constant ache across their lower back. In this scenario, one has chronically tightened up their hip-flexing muscles, has weakened their core stabilizers, and has shut off their posterior chain of muscles including the glutes and hamstrings. Often, a “tight” feeling will be present in the hamstrings, and such a person will not be able to touch their toes. Then, when a person who has these weaknesses in their body mechanics moves in such a way that the weaknesses are aggravated (for example, doing a squat), it could cause a back injury.
This person may wrongfully believe that it was the workout that led to the injury, when, in fact, it was the cumulative effect of tight hip flexors that caused the lack the proper mobility, which, when combined with a weakened posterior chain, will cause injury. To fix this, you would need to mobilize the hip flexors and start to activate and strengthen the glutes and core stabilizers. I know this isn’t intuitive at all, and we often do just the opposite and wonder why we’re stuck in a cycle of pain.
Pain has a bad rap, but if we listen to our bodies we can use those signs of discomfort and yes, even pain, as a signal to change how we’re using our bodies. Let’s not use the excuse that we’re just growing old. Healthy mobility and skill work is the key to a healthy body and to preventing injuries and to maintaining our quality of living.
By Liliana Gala, LMT & Co-Owner EDX CrossFit