I often get asked if it is safe to continue to exercise or train while experiencing pain. Like most of the answers surrounding the complexity of the pain experience, it depends. Traditional thinking following injury was R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compress, elevate); we have debunked this method in past articles; for more information, click here to learn more. We now know that it is essential to keep moving and stay active following an injury. Similarly, some exercises we prescribe to our clients during the rehab/training process often elicit discomfort, and this is okay! So, what limit is considered safe when exercising/training with pain?
I like to use a traffic light as an analogy to help my clients understand their pain and make appropriate decisions for exercise/training based on what they are feeling.
Most of us are familiar with the Visual Analog Scale (VAS); it is a series of numbers (0-10) with associated faces and pain ratings. 0 is no pain, happy face. 10 is the worst pain ever and a face in severe distress.
Returning to exercise following an injury and sometimes our regular noninjured training can lead to some discomfort. Some mild pain is expected when dealing with MOST (not all) musculoskeletal injuries, and this pain is likely to increase as we perform an exercise to target the area. We consider this the green light or safe zone. In the green zone, pain is minimal (0-3 out of 10 on the VAS) during the activity and returns to baseline following completion of the session.
If pain is moderate, 4-5 out of 10 on the VAS, we consider this the acceptable zone. The acceptable zone is our yellow light, meaning proceed with caution. We can continue to train here so long as we are monitoring symptoms closely. We may need to decrease the training intensity by decreasing load or volume or decreasing the training frequency to return to the green zone.
Intense pain (6 out of 10 or greater) during or after activity is our red light zone. Pain at this level is a stoplight. It tells us that we are potentially overdoing it and should stop training at this level, but NOT stop it altogether. Again, this is an opportunity to modify training load, intensity, frequency, or duration by backing off slightly to return to the yellow or green zone.
Remember, pain and the pain experience are relatively subjective, and each individual's experience with pain is just as unique as they are! However, experiencing pain with training or returning to exercise following an injury is extremely common and expected. Pain is a natural part of the healing process, and if we can learn to gauge and understand pain in a way that helps us continue to move forward, we will be doing well by our body to listen!
If you need help working to understand what your body is telling you during your training, reach out, we are here to help!
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