Playing through the pain = more loss than gain

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November 16, 2022
By Chayil Champion
Estimated read time: 3 minutes
Most everyone who has engaged in athletic competition has, at one time or another, heard these words: “Suck it up!” “No pain, no gain!” “It’s just a sprain, you’ll be alright.”

Athletes have been taught to live by these clichés, but, Sharon Hame, MD, a UCLA Health sports-medicine orthopaedic surgeon, said they can present a significant challenge to allowing oneself to heal properly.

“Sometimes it is difficult for a patient or athlete to determine if something is a true injury versus soreness from overuse or because you worked out a little too hard,” Dr. Hame said. The quality of pain, however, is a good indicator. “Anything that feels like a sharp pain merits consideration for rest and evaluation.”

Understanding your injury

It also is good to know where your injury is located. Knowing if the injury is to a ligament, muscle or tendon can help determine the best course of action.

Injury to a ligament, the sturdy bands of tissue that connect bones, can require surgery, particularly if they are major ligaments and are completely torn. So, too, but not as frequently, might injury to a tendon, which connects muscles to bone. A muscle injury usually requires little more than rest, application of heat or cold and gradual return to activity.

“When it comes to injury, we worry a lot about ligaments and tendons and their attachment to the bone,” Dr. Hame said. “That’s more concerning than an injury between the muscle and the tendon, which more often are strains that can heal with time."

However, she continues, “sometimes there is an avulsion injury, where the tendon pulls off the bone, such as a hamstring or biceps tendon and that is a critical injury that often must be fixed with surgery.”

Bones can also break or fracture from impact, requiring immediate medical attention.

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Playing through pain can cause other injuries

For a variety of reasons, many pro athletes risk playing through injury. Often it is for financial reasons; playing a sport is their job. Sometimes it is ego, driven by the psychology of toughness. Or it is sacrifice, continuing to play for the sake of the team.

Whatever the reason, playing through an injury can make it worse, Dr. Hame said. A player who thinks they are being tough by playing on an injury that might normally take a few weeks to heal might, instead, find themself sidelined for months with a larger injury.

And playing on an injury may cause damage to other parts of your body as you overcompensate and try to protect the injured area.

When in doubt, talk it out

Any athlete, pro or amateur, should see their physician immediately if their pain is ongoing, Dr. Hame said.

“If you are experiencing a lingering pain, or an acute injury that is very painful or results in a lot of deformity or swelling in your arm, leg or joints, then you want to consider seeking help from a doctor,” she said.

Learn more about orthopaedic treatments and surgeries.