Athletes, especially student athletes, are competitive by nature. It’s what drives them to wake up early, to train every day and to win, no matter the conditions. This willpower is all-important to athletes at any level, but it can backfire. Pushing too hard when you’re dealing with an injury or pain may not just be momentarily uncomfortable, but it could slow down your recovery.
Pain is your body’s primal signal to stop. It’s what lets you know that something is wrong, and it absolutely should not be ignored. Unfortunately, we tell ourselves and each other that stopping or slowing down are signs of weakness and that taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our bodies need downtime in order to heal. Self-care isn’t self-indulgence, it’s basic, routine maintenance. So why do we avoid caring for ourselves and opt instead to push through the pain?
When we fail to stop and care for ourselves, we are greeted by a series of false rewards. Our colleagues, friends, and coaches might tell us that we’re brave or that we’re tough. We’re called “team players” or “troopers” for putting other peoples’ needs ahead of our own. We even congratulate ourselves, satisfied that we have overcome an obstacle and come out the other side without stopping or even slowing down.
Remember, however, that these rewards are false, or at the very least, hollow. Reassuring words or slaps on the back make us feel good emotionally, but they do nothing to heal our injuries or resolve any physical pain. When we choose to push through rather than care for ourselves, we trade meaningful healing time for words and gestures. Every time we opt for the rewards of backslapping and compliments, we miss the opportunity to gain the true rewards of improved health.
The best way to choose between resting and playing, or between seeking medical care or not, is to first distinguish between pain and discomfort. Pain, especially when exercising, can be acute, meaning it is intense but relatively brief in duration. Even when it is chronic, meaning less intense in the moment but more frequent or long-lasting, it does not make it any less important to treat. Whether acute or chronic, pain is severe enough to interfere with your training or playing, or at the very least, it makes you consider stopping.
Discomfort, on the other hand, is usually a good way to describe muscle fatigue, very mild soreness, or general tiredness. Discomfort is the sort of thing you feel when starting a new season, dialing up the intensity of your training, running farther, or lifting more weight. At its most intense, discomfort may be a sign you need a break from training. Running or lifting in intervals designed to give muscles or muscle groups a break after a day of use can reduce discomfort, and as you grow stronger, soreness and fatigue should begin to subside on their own.
Pain rarely takes care of itself. If you feel pain, it is important to stop and assess what it causing the pain and what can be done to alleviate it. If the pain is acute and severe, it is especially important to immediately stop doing whatever activity is exacerbating or aggravating it. Continuing to play though intense, acute pain could worsen whatever condition is causing the pain in the first place. Chronic pain – the sort that it almost always present but may get worse with exercise – is likely the result of an underlying condition that has yet to be treated. Until the affected area is evaluated and the underlying condition determined, it is best to avoid engaging in exercises or other activities that intensify the pain.
As with any condition, it is always best to heal the underlying cause rather than to treat the symptoms. Over the counter pain relievers are only a short-term solution and shouldn’t be relied upon for continual relief. More powerful prescription pain relievers carry substantial and often alarming risks, but still do nothing to treat the underlying injury or physical condition that are causing pain. The only long-term solution to pain both acute and chronic is to diagnose and directly treat your underlying condition. While some conditions do require surgery, many others can be successfully treated with physical therapy and an accompanying home exercise regimen. The important thing to remember is to not ignore pain, but to instead seek effective treatment.