Almost everyone who plays team sports or has worked with a fitness trainer has heard the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” Sometimes that phrase is true. The muscle soreness that follows a vigorous weightlifting session probably doesn’t represent a serious injury. In fact, it might lead you to increased muscle strength and size.
Not all muscle, bone or joint pain is benign, however. Some musculoskeletal pain can suggest a real injury. Pushing through that pain could make an injury worse, or at least slow its recovery. How do you know what pain is potentially good and which one is likely bad?
Does your pain represent a serious injury?
I wish I could offer a simple, black-and-white answer. Some rule like, “dull pain is acceptable; burning pain is serious,” would be great if it was always true. Unfortunately pain after an injury is not always straightforward.
Rather than focusing solely on pain, you might look for other signs of a more serious injury. This list could be much longer, but I would start with swelling and mechanical symptoms.
Signs of a serious injury
Mild swelling of the knee, ankle or other joint might not be worrisome. If you notice that the body part you injured is visibly more swollen than the other side, it might be a different story. A grossly swollen knee or ankle might not result from an injury that needs surgery, but it’s worth going to a sports medicine doctor to find the specific cause.
Mechanical symptoms refer to specific limitations often caused by structural damage. A meniscal tear or loose body in the knee might cause locking, or getting stuck in a certain position, or catching, where the knee starts to lock but the athlete can push or twist her knee past it.
An ACL or other ligament tear could cause the knee to give way or buckle. A labral tear of the shoulder might create an uncomfortable clicking sensation deep within the shoulder.
Again, this is not a comprehensive list of signs that an injury might be serious. As I said in another tip, if pain or other symptoms are limiting your ability to play or perform your activity as well as you would like, it can be worthwhile to go the doctor to have the injury evaluated.