When I hit my late 20s, I picked up my first athletic hobby—and with it, my very first sports injury. I was completely clueless about the recovery process, though, and, worse, completely inexperienced in coping with lasting physical pain. Sadly, it was almost a year before I found medical professionals who were able to figure out what would work for my body and help me get onto the road to recovery.
In the meantime, I searched for information online, but every article I read said the same thing: Get a good night’s sleep and stay positive. While I don’t disagree with these points, that’s inadequate advice for dealing with a serious injury. What I needed at the time was solid advice on how to manage my pain, so that things like sleep were even possible. I needed to know how to get better—and how to stay sane until I did.
I never did find the perfect article, but as I talked to experts and made discoveries on my own, I realized that I might be able to help people who find themselves in a similar situation.
If you’re dealing with an injury, here’s how to begin dealing with the pain—both physical and emotional.
For Your Body
1. Get it on Ice
You’ll want to ice immediately following an injury and throughout the recovery process. Ice reduces swelling and inflammation and provides pill-free relief from pain (as long as you don’t do it for more than 20 minutes at a time). Use a bag of frozen peas—it’ll conform to the curves of your body better than an ordinary ice pack will.
2. Get (the Right) Help
If your injury hasn’t improved after a week, it’s time to seek a professional opinion. A doctor can perform a physical exam and order an MRI or X-ray to find out what’s wrong, or put you in touch with a physical therapist who will check your strength, flexibility, and mobility. Choose medical professionals who listen to you, and who offer you treatment that’s right for your particular injury and body type. Be careful of the one-size-fits-all approach to healing, and don’t be afraid to move on to someone new if you’re not getting what you need.
Also consider seeing a massage therapist—they can often tell what’s wrong with a muscle by how it responds to gentle pressure. They can also address muscle stiffness and tightness of the fascia, the layer of connective tissue that surrounds muscles, both of which can prolong discomfort even after the injury itself has healed.
3. Keep Moving
When you’re injured, your first instinct is to protect the injured area by tensing up to avoid the pain of moving. Some movements are a bad idea at the beginning of an injury (and a professional can tell you which ones those are), but don’t take self-protection too far. You need to keep moving so your muscles stay strong and so scar tissue doesn’t attach to your muscles or bones.
4. But if it Hurts, Don’t Do It!
Sometimes people tend to think stretches are supposed to hurt—they’re not! So if you feel pain doing stretches or exercise (even those that your doctor or physical therapist recommends)—stop. Stretch only to the point where your muscles begin to engage and increase the stretch gradually. A caring medical professional can show you how to modify exercises to minimize discomfort.
When you exhale, your muscles relax. Make deep breathing a part of your daily routine, especially when the pain is at its worst. It’s also great for stretching—you’re less likely to hurt yourself if you breathe as you stretch.
6. Pay Attention to your Body
An injury gives you the opportunity to get in touch with your body. Pay attention to the way the muscles feel as you stretch, do your rehabilitation exercises, and go about your day. What kind of pain do you feel? Where? What relieves the pain? The more aware you are, the less likely you’ll be to push yourself too far and to injure yourself in the future. You’ll also learn to recognize and meet your body’s needs instead of ignoring them—something most of us, unfortunately, aren’t taught to do.
For Your Psyche
1. Reach Out
Being injured is more that just physically painful—it’s emotionally draining, especially if you feel that you’re suffering alone and you’re not able to do the things you did before. One of the best things you can do is sit down with a friend, especially one who’s had chronic pain issues herself or himself, and just talk about what’s going on.
2. Focus on Something Else
The less time you spend obsessing about your injury, the better. Yes, your activities might be limited, but I’ve found that no matter what hurts, there’s always something I can do to distract myself. Read, catch up on your Netflix queue, or listen to inspirational podcasts—any outlet that will keep you busy.
3. Be Upset, and then Move On
If you have a long-term or serious injury, there are going to be days when you can handle the pain and days when you just want to curl into a ball and bawl. And that’s OK. When those bad days happen, be as kind and gentle to yourself as possible. Feeling miserable, angry, or frustrated does not make you a weak person: It just makes you human. So cry if you need to. And when you’re done, take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re on the way to getting better.
4. Learn from the Experience
I believe that good things come from even the most challenging situations, as long as we’re open to them. Dealing with an injury for over a year has been difficult for me, but it’s also made me appreciate all the amazing things my body does every day. Recovery has made me stronger, physically and emotionally. I’m not the same person I was when I felt that first burst of pain, and I’m grateful.
Most of all, my injury put me in a position to be compassionate towards others and to help them through their own pain. While I hope that you never have to go through what I did, if you do, maybe you can use the experience to grow, learn, and pass on your own wisdom.