What to Do When Fitness Injury Strikes

How to stay in shape until you're back in the game

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Cynthia Haines, MD

You've reduced your calories and increased your activity and finally, the weight loss is starting to show. Then one unsuspecting day you don your workout clothes, tie on your sneakers -- and the next thing you know, you're yelping in pain.

Experts say a workout injury can happen to anyone, regardless of experience or conditioning.

"A pulled muscle, a strained back, a turned ankle, a shoulder sprain -- it can happen in the blink of an eye, usually when you least expect it," says Todd Schlifstein, DO, clinical assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at New York University Medical Center.

According to sports medicine specialist Robert Gotlin, DO, the most vulnerable areas for pulls and strains are the hamstring and thigh, followed by leg or calf muscles.

If you're a beginner exercising to lose weight, the risk of injury may be even greater, with hot spots that also include knees and ankles.

"If you are overweight, the most common injury is a sprain occurring in either the ankle or the kneecap," says Gotlin, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. This problem often occurs when surrounding muscles are weak due to a lack of exercise, he says.

"The more out of shape you are when you start to work out, the greater your risk of injury, particularly if your muscles are weak," says Gotlin.

Pain vs. Soreness: Know the Signs

Even if you're already in good shape, experts say problems can occur if you overuse any one set of muscles. To keep this from happening, ease into the activity slowly and never skip warm-ups.

"For example, take five minutes out to stretch your muscles before jumping on that treadmill or bicycle, and don't push yourself to the point of pain -- even if you have done the routine before," says Schlifstein.

Some more advice: Stop immediately if you do feel pain, and rest for a day. If pain begins when you do the same motion again, says Schlifstein, it's a sure bet you've got an injury.

But how do you know you've got an injury and are not just sore from working out?

"Soreness usually shows up one or two days after you work out, and does not usually occur while you are actually doing the activity," says Rich Weil, MEd, CDE, an exercise physiologist at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York and consultant for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic.

If you try to work out when you're feeling sore, the pain usually subsides after 10-15 minutes of activity, Weil says. Not so when an injury is involved.

"Pain related to an injury gets worse when you are working out," says Schlifstein. "That's when you know it's time to stop and listen to your body."

When Injury Occurs

Of course, while precautions like warming up and starting slowly can reduce your risk of injury, there's always a chance you'll get hurt anyway. The experts say it's important to remember that all but the most severe workout injuries usually heal on their own. Most do so in four weeks or less, says Schlifstein, and you can recover from many muscle strains in less than 10 days.

"Most people can usually heal their injury on their own using the RICE procedure, which is rest, ice, compression and elevation," Schlifstein says. "And the sooner after the injury you begin, the more you reduce the risk of inflammation setting in, and the quicker you can get back on your feet."

Until you're healed, avoid doing whatever activity you were doing when you got the injury, as well as other moves that involve the injured area.

"Don't try to be a hero and 'work through' the pain," says Schlifstein. "You'll only do more damage."

If the injury doesn't feel significantly better within a week -- and certainly if it feels worse -- seek medical care. Any numbness, tingling, or weakness in the leg, or sudden bladder- or bowel-related problems should be reported to a doctor right away.

And what about regaining the weight during the time an injury slows you down?

Because 80% of all injuries usually heal on their own -- often in less than a month -- the threat of weight gain is small during the recovery period, Gatlin says. But for some, Weil cautions, the forced break in activity can be enough of a mental blow to trigger overeating.

"The lack of activity after being injured can cause some people to feel a lack of control in their lives, and together with changes in brain chemistry that also occur when activity stops, can sometimes lead to depression, and that can sometimes lead to overeating," he says.

"Upper-body workouts burn more calories...than a lower-body workout."