Athletes are conditioned to experience and deal with pain, but how do you know when discomfort and pain is indicating a more serious issue rather than just the echo of a tough work-out?
“Everyone experiences pain differently, but there are ways to help determine whether you’re feeling pain due to an injury, or are sore from a hard training session,” says Kettering Health Network athletic trainer Nic Keuler, MS, AT, ATC.
To identify if you’re experiencing pain or soreness, it helps to have an understanding of the differences between types of discomfort.
- Caused by: A specific incident resulting in injury.
- Symptoms: Experienced immediately and typically feels like a sharp, shooting pain. Can be accompanied by swelling and limited mobility.
- Examples: Sprained ankle, rolled ankle, torn ligament.
- If not treated, acute pain can become chronic pain.
- Caused by: Usually has an unknown origin and is difficult to pinpoint a specific incident. Likely developed over a period of time.
- Symptoms: Can feel like a sharp, shooting pain, a dull ache, or both at the same time.
- Examples: Shin splints, low back pain.
- Can become debilitating if not treated.
- Caused by: A level of physical activity your body is not accustomed to, like a taxing run, tough work-out, or even a long day of standing on your feet.
- Symptoms: Usually feels like a dull ache or tightness in muscles. Can be accompanied by aching joints.
- Examples: Tender muscles that can feel heavy or difficult to move.
- Generally, subsides in a few days.
“Admittedly, sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate soreness from pain,” says orthopedic surgeon Safet Hatic II, DO, FAOAO. “Soreness that does not resolve with rest may suggest an athlete is over training or approaching an injury threshold. The severity of the pain will influence treatment approach; sometimes an athlete just needs to adjust their training and conditioning. In other cases, pain may indicate a significant injury requiring more significant interventions.”
“Anytime you have pain, you should evaluate what you did that led to the pain,” says Keuler. “Many times, the body will repair itself if you avoid the motion or activity that led to the injury that caused the pain—such as staying off your feet for a few days after rolling your ankle. If pain lingers for more than a week without improvement, then you should see a healthcare professional. Also, if it affects your daily life adversely, even if you just think you’re sore, then you should also see a healthcare professional.”
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