We’ve all done it – pulled a muscle or sprained a joint from overdoing it. Whether it was at the gym doing the exact same gym routine you’ve been repeating 3 times a week for years, or after picking up a sport you haven’t dabbled in for ages (ouch – should have seen that one coming!) – we all want to recover as fast and as safely as possible. Here are some naturopathic tips for speeding your injury recovery, which will hopefully get you back to doing what you love sooner.
Make an expert part of your recovery team
When an injury is serious in nature (affecting circulation or sensation in an area) or is lasting longer than 48-72 hours, and rest alone does not seem enough to control the pain or loss of function – then you need to get in to see a professional. Your primary care doctor is a great starting point for more serious injuries that could require testing such as x-rays and ultrasound to rule out complicating factors. Though you might also consider seeking advice and treatment from a chiropractor, massage therapist, or physiotherapist (or all 3!) as physical medicine can help with both pain relief and to speed healing. I recommend that patients get in to see their physical medicine expert as soon as they can to get their recovery on tract and to get help to prevent poor physical habits such as overcompensating or overusing other muscle or joint groups during the recovery process.
Let your food be your (anti-inflammatory) medicine
Inflammation is the process by which a body part becomes red, swollen, and painful as a result of injury. This is part of the body’s natural recovery mechanisms; inflammation increases circulation, thereby bringing the body’s in-house anti-inflammatories and healing agents to the injury site and then allowing the unnecessary by-products of this process to then just as easily leave the site. Inflammation becomes a problem when it becomes inappropriate – when it has stuck around for too long, or it has resulted in swelling that can compromise circulation, sensation, and healing ability.
Luckily, there are many anti-inflammatory foods out there that you can easily incorporate into your diet to help keep inappropriate inflammation at bay. These include things like fatty fish and nuts (rich in anti-inflammatory omega -3 fatty acids), cooking spices like ginger and turmeric, and anti-oxidant rich foods like beets, berries, and dark leafy greens.
Supplements made of extract from anti-inflammatory foods – such as turmeric and fish oil – may also aid in down-regulating inflammation and speeding recovery. As always, speak with your health care provider before starting any new supplement regimen.
Pop a pill when you need to, but avoid overmedicating
So you’ve injured your knee joint and your job requires a great deal of walking to and from and around the office during the day. Or maybe you’ve aggravated your elbow joint but it turns out that your rambunctious dog just won’t walk himself. For most of us, we are probably still going to be using (and maybe even overusing) the injured body part(s) in question. This is where non-prescription oral anti-inflammatories and painkillers come into play – because sometimes we need to get on with our daily lives without being in pain. For most people, these medications are safe for short-term use.
So why can’t we just pop these types of pills until the injury is healed? Well, you might be able to depending on the speed of your recovery, but it’s important to understand both the benefits and risks of pain relieving medications. Long-term use of oral NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen, has been implicated in the formation and aggravation of gastrointestinal ulcers and bleeding, and long-term analgesic use (such as acetaminophen) has also been implicated in gastrointestinal bleeding and kidney problems.
A conversation that I like to have with my patients is about pain and how it can sometimes actually be beneficial. When a patient tells me “It hurts to do this”, I often jokingly respond, “Well you probably shouldn’t do that, then”. All humour aside though, pain can be a very normal physiological response, and is our body’s way of providing feedback about needing to take it easy to avoid aggravating or worsening an injury. When you think of it this way, then overmedicating yourself on pain relievers which mask the pain might result in a false sense of comfort that could lead you to in fact aggravating or worsening an injury. Taking painkillers to mask the pain before a workout to avoid pain during the workout could result in you thinking that you can get away with more than you really should be by way of stress or strain on a body part, and you might actually end up overdoing it.
A day in pain is a day that is diminishing your quality of life. I encourage my patients to consider these types of medications to control pain on as needed basis, but remember that they are not a long term or permanent solution for pain control.
Investigate alternative treatment options
In addition to working with your health care provider for physical medicine treatment (adjustments, massage, therapeutic mobilization, etc.) you might also want to discuss with them whether you are a candidate for other therapies. Acupuncture for instance can be incredibly effective for musculoskeletal injuries, by stimulating appropriate circulation and nervous system conduction to an area. Therapeutic ultra-sound is another technique that can stimulate healing by transmitting sound waves deep into connective tissue to stimulate proper blood flow and reduce swelling.
For joint and soft tissue injuries that are not healing as quickly as we would like them to, we might also consider an injection treatment like neural therapy which involves injecting anesthetic into area the muscle and soft tissue areas to relieve pain and stimulate proper function and healing. For injuries that have become more serious or chronic, you might even be a candidate for prolotherapy, which involves injections to stimulate healing and growth of healthy tendons and ligaments.
As always, speaking with your physical medicine provider about whether any of these options are right for you.
Take your recovery seriously
No matter what your health care provider recommends as a treatment protocol – whether it is a combination of rest, stretches, exercises, supplements, or a series of visits – take it seriously and adhere to their advice. When it comes to injury recovery, seeing your therapist for an in-office visit is important, but you probably cannot get in to see them everyday, and this is why they typically prescribe at-home exercises, or “homework”. Particularly when it comes to physical exercises, remember that you have been given these tasks for a reason – because you need to do them regularly. Adhering to your recovery regiment will result in improved blood flow and circulation to the area (which brings in the body’s healing substances and takes away inflammation) but will also generally act to strengthen an injured area and its surrounding joint structures, to prevent further injury. Want to get better faster? Think of your recovery program as a second job or an exercise program all in its own – prioritize and schedule it into your daily routine.
If you embark upon a recovery program with a realistic goal in mind, and you keep up with the work you have to put along the way, not only will you heal faster but you will reduce your chances of developing a more chronic injury that might necessitate surgery or medication in the long term. Do your recovery homework, and you just might produce a stronger, (and maybe even smarter) pain-free version of yourself at the end.
Dr. Courtney Campbell is a Naturopathic Physician and co-founder of Aurora Integrative Medical in Vancouver, Canada. Her professional passions including working with patients on their journeys towards weight loss, hormonal balance, digestive health, and improved stress and anxiety.