Red light, green light: Learning to read your body’s pain signals
Summit County is filled with bodies in motion.
Whether you’re into running the corners of the baseball diamond, hiking a 14er or descending downhill terrain on a mountain bike, there may be some degree of expected aches or pains during or after activity. Knowing the difference between “normal” and “abnormal” responses to activity is important, but it can be hard to decipher the body’s language when it speaks to us using pain signals, swelling and other foreign symptoms. All too often, minor issues grow into bigger problems, which can be more difficult to treat and result in more time on the sidelines.
That being said, a pro-active approach to health always pays off physically, mentally and even financially. So, let’s make it easy to understand our body’s inherent communication system. With that, we will have a simple strategy to help determine the next move if your current movements are painful and limited.
Red light, green light
The human body is incredibly complex, but it can be relatively straightforward if you understand how the human body communicates problems. Your body might tell you right away when there is something being stressed, or it might send its messages later on.
The key to avoiding overuse-type injuries is to be a good listener and anticipate your body’s response to activity. Understanding human anatomy and physiology is a challenge, so let’s take a simple approach to recognize the signals our bodies send us.
Let’s use a simple traffic light to create a strategy: three lights, four decisions.
Green light: You are regularly or intermittently active with no aches or pains (lucky you).
Yellow light: You are regularly or intermittently active with some degree of muscle, joint or other aches or pains.
Now, imagine you’re coming up on the yellow light. Sometimes, it’s not a good idea to push through and risk it, so you just need to slow down and stop. This “yellow light” situation is when your aches or pain from activity are teetering on the edge, and, with too much stress or strain, a simple imbalance or overuse condition becomes an injury.
Red light: You are unable to partake in your desired activity due to limiting aches or pains.
Either way, “red light” symptoms (e.g. shooting arm or leg numbness/tingling emanating from the spine, significant swelling, joint instability, significantly limited and painful mobility or uncontrolled bleeding) all warrant medical care. You should seek medical attention if you ever think that you are experiencing red light symptoms, and you should certainly not partake in any physical activity that makes things worst.
What I would like to discuss more is the yellow light. Should you go through it, or slow down and stop? Timing is everything with this one. The timing and initiation of health care affects outcomes — the earlier, the better, and this pertains to most aspects of the body.
So does this mean that you should schedule an appointment to see your doctor for every minute ache or pain? Most likely not. Consider your activity level, and understand that an active lifestyle comes with a price.
That being said, maintaining a healthy, pain-free active lifestyle requires balance, meaning you need adequate rest, activity diversity (cross-training), stretching and strengthening to keep your body balanced. Without finding this balance, it is unrealistic to maintain momentum without causing or leading to injury.
Try understanding your situation, and consciously ask yourself, “Why do I hurt?” You are active, so be active and take initiative to restore your balance with rest, cross-training, stretching or strengthening. Physical therapy, personal trainers and chiropractors are excellent resources for training and recovery.
Still feel like you’re slowing down for all of your “yellow lights,” as in you’re not getting better? If yes, than it’s definitely time to follow up with a medical provider, and, in an active community like Summit County, the large pool of providers will be able to direct your care and understand your active goals.
Referencing the yellow light and the two options, use your judgment to size up symptomatic situations as they arise. There is no need to panic with every ache or pain that comes your way, but the goal is to strive for balance and symmetry with your active lifestyle. Be in touch with your health and listen to your body — it’s your vehicle on this earth.
So, the next time pain makes a move, the choice is yours: Do you speed up or slow down when you see a yellow light coming?
Eric Dube is a licensed physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist with Howard Head Sports Medicine.
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