Preventing Muscle Aches & Pains

Familiarize yourself with how to steer clear of these types of aches and pains. You’ll be happy you did.

‘Fitness’ can be defined in many ways, depending on your goals, your current level of activity and how much time you have available. A program that includes aerobics, resistance training and stretching will give you the greatest overall health benefits. But if you can't do it all, don't sweat it! This is the latest health advice: accumulating 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity over the course of a day can add up to significant health benefits. The important thing is to do something, as opposed to nothing.

The Basics: principles for pain-free fitness

Perhaps the two most important things to remember are: WARM UP FIRST, COOL DOWN LAST. These two crucial steps, with stretching as an integral element in both, will help you improve your health through fitness without suffering unnecessary joint pain or injury.

Warm Up

What?

2 - 5 minutes of low-level aerobic activity prior to your workout, starting slowly and gradually increasing in intensity,

Followed by gentle, static stretching exercises that work the major muscle groups.

Why?

Gets the heart pumping faster, which helps increase blood flow to muscles

Increases your body temperature to literally warm up muscle fibers

Warm muscles, tendons and ligaments are more fluid, so they stretch and contract more easily, which help make them stronger and decrease the risk of injury

Cool Down

What?

2 - 5 minutes of continued mild activity after exercise, gradually decreasing in intensity

Slow stretching exercises to re-stretch the muscles

Why?

Gradually slows down the heart's pumping action to prevent blood from pooling in lower muscles, which would reduce blood flow to the heart and brain, and could cause faintness or worse

Cool-down stretching can also prevent muscle stiffness and soreness by re-stretching muscles that are shortened during exercise

Reach for flexibility

Stretching, though often overlooked, plays a vital role in keeping muscles and joints strong and pliable so they are less susceptible to injury. That's why it's such an important part of warming up before, and cooling down after, physical activity.

Spending a few minutes a day doing slow, deliberate stretches can also help you manage stress more effectively - giving you a chance to momentarily shut off outside stressors and focus, physically and mentally, on your activity.

Books and articles describing specific stretches abound. A good routine should work each of the major muscle groups, and needn't take long. 5 - 10 minutes is all you need.

Rules to stretch by:

  • Warm up first: warm muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more flexible and stretch more easily; stretching ‘cold’ muscles can cause tears
  • Stretches should always be gradual and gentle
  • Hold each stretch in a static position for 10 - 20 seconds, allowing the muscle to lengthen slowly
  • Do not bounce; bouncing actually causes muscle fibers to shorten, not lengthen
  • Stretch only to the point of resistance; if the stretch hurts, you're pushing too hard
  • Don't rush through the stretching routine; use it to prepare yourself mentally and physically for activity

Sports injuries—how to stay in the game

Nothing is more frustrating than finally getting involved in an activity you enjoy, only to hurt yourself and be forced into a prolonged rehabilitation period. Although some injuries may be unavoidable, proper conditioning and attention to the details of warm-ups, cool-downs and stretching will help you stay in the game.

Injury identification

Being physically active shouldn't be painful, but occasionally, injuries do occur. The most common ones are often what sports physicians call ‘overuse’ injuries-usually a result of trying to do too much, too soon.

General muscle aches and pains are normal when you start a new activity or increase the intensity or duration of exercise, although proper stretching during the cool-down phase can help prevent much of the ‘day-after’ muscle soreness.

Pain in joints or ligaments, on the other hand, is typically cause for concern. The most common joint pain causes are:

  • Muscle pulls and strains: tears in tendon and muscle fiber, due most frequently to improper stretching
  • Sprains: tears in the ligaments that connect bones. These tears typically occur when joints are suddenly turned in an awkward manner with some force
  • Tendonitis: inflammation of the tendons that can impair joint movement, usually caused by overuse or improper technique
  • Stress fractures: cracks in the bone's surface, indicating trauma just short of a break
  • Broken bones: fractures to the skeletal structure, usually obvious due to severe pain, and always requiring medical attention

Self-treatment guidelines

Fortunately, many of the most common injuries can be treated at home, after you've assessed the severity of the injury and have determined that medical advice is not required. For strains and sprains, the most commonly recommended guidelines for joint pain relief are easily remembered by the acronym R-I-C-E, for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation:

  • Rest the injured area immediately to cut down on blood circulation to that part of the body;
  • Apply ice immediately, which shrinks blood vessels and reduces swelling;
  • Compress the injured area with an elastic bandage or cloth to also help reduce swelling;
  • Elevate the damaged part to a level higher than the heart

When to see a doctor

Let common sense guide your decision about whether to seek medical attention, using the degree of pain and the circumstances of the injury as guidelines. Generally, see a doctor if:

  • Pain is extreme or persistent;
  • You've suffered trauma to any joint, possibly affecting underlying connective tissue;
  • An injury does not heal in a reasonable time;
  • You develop an infection or fever; or
  • You're unsure about the severity of the injury