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How to Prevent Fitness Injuries

Overuse and Acute injuries

Fitness injuries can happen to anyone, at any level of experience. They're common workout-stoppers whether you jog twice a day, walk every other day, or even when you're just trying out a new activity.

Some injuries cost you only a few days' soreness, while others can sideline you for much longer. Beginning a new sport? Just starting to exercise? Take extra care: According to the Merck Manual, out of every 10 folks who start a new activity, six will drop out within the first six weeks because of an injury.

But it doesn't have to be that way. No matter how you exercise, a little homework now can save you pain and lost time later.

Overuse and acute injuries

Fitness injuries fall into two categories. Overuse injuries — runner's knee, say, or tennis elbow — happen over time, while acute injuries — such as a twisted ankle or a dislocated shoulder — happen on the spot.

Overuse injuries tend to start with a small ache or swelling in a specific area during your workouts. At the first sign of an overuse injury, you should heed your body's signal and stop. If you keep using that part of your body in spite of the pain or swelling, the injured area will soon be bothering you even when you aren't working out.

Acute injuries, on the other hand, happen without warning. A slip of the foot off the path or a yank on the shoulder during rugby can suddenly mean a sprain or a dislocation. The pain with acute injuries will be immediate — maybe even severe enough to stop you in your tracks.

Common overuse injuries include:

  • Achilles tendinitis. An inflammation of the Achilles tendon, which attaches the calf muscles to the heel bone. Causes calf pain.
  • Hamstring injury. A strain of the hamstring muscle, which is located on the back of the thigh. Causes pain when the muscle is stretched.
  • Lumbar strain. A strain of the lower back muscles, causing a lower backache. Sometimes called weightlifter's back.
  • Popliteus tendinitis. A tear in the popliteus tendon, which wraps around the knee and connects with the thigh. Running downhill becomes painful.
  • Rotator cuff tendinitis. A tear in the rotator cuff muscle, causing shoulder pain.
  • Runner's knee. Rubbing of the kneecap against the tip of the thighbone. Makes running downhill painful.
  • Shin splints. Damage to muscles along the shin, causing pain along the front of the lower leg.
  • Stress fractures. Small cracks in the bones caused by repeated excessive impact. These painful fractures are often found in the foot.
  • Tennis elbow. Damage to the tendons in the elbow. Causes pain when moving the lower arm forward or back.
  • Plantar fasciitis. Pain in the sole of the foot and heel from excessive stretching, poor shoes, and overdoing exercise before conditioning.

Common acute injuries include:

  • Bruises
  • Cuts
  • Dislocations
  • Sprains
  • Torn ligaments
  • Torn muscles
  • Fractures

Take steps to reduce your risk

Good exercise habits go a long way toward preventing injury. Think of the following six suggestions as your insurance policy against it.
  • Warm up. Many people want to "get to the good stuff" and skip this important step. But jumping right into intense physical activity isn't safe. Spend the first three to 10 minutes of your workout at a relaxed pace. If you let your body warm up and make a smooth transition from a resting state to an active one, you'll protect your muscles and tendons from injury.
  • Know your limits. Sure, you could run 10 miles back when you were on the high school track team. But if you haven't run in years, start slow and progress gradually. Allow at least 48 hours between workouts in the beginning. And if you've been a couch potato for a while, consider a trip to the doctor before you start your exercise program.
  • Get the right gear. Don't jog in hiking boots, power-walk in sandals, or hike in Keds. The proper equipment lessens your risk of injury. Trying a new activity and aren't sure you'll stick with it? Even if you're not ready to buy the necessary gear, don't try to make do without it — rent or borrow the right equipment.
  • Choose the right location. Use common sense. Runners should seek soft, flat ground. Too many hard surfaces, hills, or banked roads can lead to runner's knee or shin splints. Bikers need to keep safety in mind. Wear a helmet, bike on well-lighted paths away from heavy traffic, don't listen to music through headphones, and make sure drivers in cars and buses can see you.
  • Alternate activities. During a workout, you stress and slightly damage the muscle fibers that you're exercising. This strain is good in moderation — but if you work the same muscle group over and over, the tired muscles don't have a chance to recover, and you may injure them. Try alternating strenuous sessions with easier ones. Or alternate between upper and lower body workouts, such as running one day and swimming the next.
  • Cool down. Switch to a slower pace near the end of your workout to bring your heart rate back down. Don't stop your activity abruptly — that can cause dizziness or fainting. Cooling down is the reverse of warming up: If you've been jogging or running, for example, spend the last several minutes of your workout just walking.

How to treat an injury

Injuries happen now and then even to the careful. If you're injured, knowing what to do and how to care for yourself is crucial. For minor injuries or discomfort, the following guidelines may be helpful. When in doubt, always contact your doctor.

For overuse injuries: Minor overuse injuries usually just need rest. If you stopped at the first sign of pain, three days may be enough — but if you kept going, you might need up to three weeks or even longer. Be sure you've completely recovered before you resume any activities that will put stress on the injured area.

You don't have to stop working out completely, though. Try a different activity for a while, one that exercises a different set of muscles. If you have runner's knee, you might try swimming; if you have tennis elbow, jogging might be the ticket. This can let you stay active and maintain your level of fitness.

The RICE method can help the healing process along.
  • Rest the injured area. Stop what you're doing. Don't try to return to the activity until the pain and swelling are gone — usually after one to three days if you stopped at the first sign of injury; longer if you didn't.
  • Ice the affected area ten minutes on, ten minutes off, several times a day until the swelling goes down. Be sure to put a thin towel between the ice pack and your skin to prevent frostbite.
  • Compression also helps reduce swelling. Using elastic athletic tape, wrap the area from bottom to top, from a few inches below the injury to a few inches above it. Don't wrap so tightly that you cut off circulation — think snug and firm but not painfully tight.
  • Elevate the injured area above your heart as much as possible for the first few days after the injury. If your ankle or foot is injured, for example, prop up your leg on a small box or stack of books while you sit.
If your injury hasn't responded after a week of rest and RICE, or if it recurs or causes serious pain, see your doctor right away.

For acute injuries: You should see a doctor for most acute injuries — especially for serious injuries such as a dislocated knee. Torn muscles and ligaments also need to be examined by a doctor. Get medical care as soon as you can, and avoid moving the injured area, which may cause further damage. Remember to ask the doctor what you should do to help the healing process and how long you should avoid exercising the injured area.

You can treat small cuts yourself: Clean the affected area well and cover it with a bandage. Bruises can be treated with ice packs. If you're going biking in the woods or other remote area, carry a small first-aid kit that includes antiseptic wipes and bandages.

Don't let fitness injuries derail your good intentions. Work out safely, and when injuries do occur, treat them properly. That way you won't be stuck watching the fun from the sidelines.

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