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Muscle Pain - Push Through or Pull Up And Stop


From time to time everybody develops aches and pains that are a normal part of human function. These minor aches serve to teach us when we have pushed ourselves a little too far. Maybe you’ve attacked the garden after this long winter and felt the strain in your body for a couple of days after. Or maybe you’ve started a new exercise program or worked late into the night at your office computer. These aches are usually short lived and just remind us that over doing things has consequences. We learn from it, then usually make the same mistakes again soon after!


We do this because getting the job done ranks more highly in our importance than how you might feel later does. And it is important that we think this way, or nothing will ever get done in our lives. The problem comes when we apply this logic to a more severe muscle pull.


I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say “I felt my muscle pull but I thought I would just work through it and it will go away”. The importance gets placed on finishing the task even though our intuition tells us that we should really stop.


When a muscle is strained it did so for a reason. This may be chemical, biomechanical or due to some external force like tripping down a curb. None the less it happened. Most people pull up and stop if the injury was externally created but when it comes out of nowhere like a cramp or spasm people think that it will go away as quickly as it came on; it won’t. Regardless of what caused this injury a process has been set into action by your body’s protective functions and it goes something like this:


Initial Injury > Protective Muscle Guarding (splinting of the injury by surrounding tissues) > Inflammatory Response by the Immune System > Healing of Tissues Over Several Days > Return to Basic Functions of the Tissue > Progressive Strengthening of Affected Tissues > Full Function Returned.


The timings of this process are dependent on the grade of injury but at best takes 3-5 days. Now, I say 3-5 days but this is dependent on a perfect situation. If you do not rest the affected tissues, you put stress on those tissues that are splinting. This puts them at risk of injury very easily and now you are looking at a bigger problem with longer recovery times. It is usually after two or three of these re-injuries, or the frustration that the injury will not go away that people pick up the phone and dial my number. So injuries tend to accumulate something like this:


Initial injury > Protective Muscle Guarding > Ignore the signs and carry on > Guarding tissue breaks under the increased stress > New area of Muscle Guarding to splint new tissue damage > Ignore the signs > New guarding tissue breaks under the increased stress > Major injury that could take weeks to heal.


Think of your body like your kitchen. If you leave today’s dirty dishes until after you have had dinner tomorrow you’ll barely have enough room to put anything down on your work surfaces. This is because yesterday’s problem is right underneath the same problem you caused today. The problems are identical but now they are twice the size, and if you don’t take control now then tomorrow will be worse still. Only when you run out of clean dishes are you forced to deal will the problem. And rather than taking 5 minutes to wash up the initial load it could take you an hour to get everything clean and cleared away.


This analogy is so similar to muscular injury because injuries build up when they are not dealt with early. Injuries rarely just go away. Say you pull your calf muscle whilst out running and work through the pain to see if it goes away. After another mile or so the pain gets less and you can manage to keep going until you finish. It is very unlikely that you cheated the system and ran the problem off. What usually happens is the body sees this as a stress situation where you need to keep running from danger. So it released hormones that inhibit pain so that you can get to a safe place and stop running. Once you have rested the hormones will be removed and the pain will start to return. Usually the next day you can barely move. So just to finish that run you now have a larger injury than you need have suffered that can sop you running for weeks.


Assessments can be made by a professional trained in recognising soft tissue injury and a relevant strategy can be put in place so that your recovery is as quick as possible. If you follow the plan you will almost certainly make a full recovery but remember, the longer you waited to deal with the problem, the longer you should expect the recovery to take.


My advice is to pull up early, when intuition tells you to stop. If you are in pain whilst sat at your desk and intuition tells you to get up and move, then get up and move. If the garden is taking longer to weed than your back can handle, take a rest or change to a different activity.


Your body is the most important tool you own and it is with you for life. You can’t change it but you can maintain it and with a correct plan you can even upgrade it to be fitter and stronger. Seek advice, feed it with whole foods, and exercise within it’s limits and it will serve you well your entire life. Just don’t ignore it.