We all know that pain is our body’s protection mechanism, but often pain does not tell the whole story. Pain is interpreted based on previous experiences, expectations, and the signals from body tissues. We often stop activity at the first pang, but sometimes guarding and protection can contribute to the pain cycle. Guidelines are helpful to distinguish between when moving is hurting and when it is harming, so we can be confident to remain active and safe.
The following guidelines are appropriate for joint and muscle pain not caused by surgery or an acute injury. In these cases, follow your surgeon’s protocol or seek medical evaluation. Never push through high levels of pain and see a physical therapist with questions about safety of a movement.
While exercising, keep pain at or below 6 on a 0-10 scale. If needed, perform the hurtful movement in a smaller range or with a lighter load to improve safety and comfort. If the pain is the same before and after the exercise, even if it is increased during, you are in a good range. Take it easy, but continue — sometimes our bodies have to experience movement in a safe situation to remember that it is ok to move.
You also need to check in after 24 hours. After exercise, if:
- Pain is not increased immediately or the next day = no harm, keep doing it!
- Pain is increased immediately but back to normal the next day = safe zone, keep doing it!
- Pain is not increased immediately but worse the next day = a little much, back off and try it again with slightly fewer reps or lighter load.
- Pain is increased immediately and the next day = too much, don’t give up but next time significantly reduce time, reps, or load or consult a physical therapist.
Finding the appropriate level of exercise may take some trial and error. If you need help, a physical therapist can evaluate and modify your exercise form and determine the appropriate intensity. Furthermore, a physical therapist can assess for the movement impairments that may be contributing to your pain — it is not always what you think!
Listen to your body to prevent injury, but do not be afraid to get moving with the above guidelines. As your body gets stronger and your joints become more stable, the worry of harm decreases and often the hurt goes along with it.
Tiffany Salido is a doctor of physical therapy and owner of The Movement Joint, a wellness studio offering safe, PT-led exercise classes individualized for people with joint and muscle pain, weakness, balance problems, fatigue, and mobility difficulties, or who want personalized guidance to begin their fitness journey. Find out more at themovementjoint.com or call 828-680-0422.