Rest, ice, support, painkillers and avoid impact activities – that’s your conventional advice when it comes to muscle pain…but it’s wrong and here’s why…
Now, before we continue, I do want to make it clear that I’m ONLY talking about pains that have started small and gradually got worse over time (gradual onset), or more severe problems like ligament strains that happened a long time ago, but never really seemed to get better (chronic).
I am NOT talking about the immediate care for severe pains that happen suddenly (acute), however, in the National Guidelines (which is where this advice comes from), there appears to be no dinstinction between these types of pains.
The following advice is set by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and as a result is permeated throughout the healthcare system, which is why your doctor is most likely to recommend it as a course of action, but when it comes to choronic or gradual onset pains, it simply doesn’t work.
Let’s use the example of knee pain to explain why…
Protect – protect from further injury (for example by using a support)
Of course, this is sound advice for someone who is writhing around on the floor, in agony with their knee pain. It might be that they have torn a ligament or experienced a dislocation, and in these acute situations, bracing their knee with some kind of external support to give them some protection until they can get to a hospital is a great idea.
But when it comes to minor aches and pains it won’t help at all – in fact, it’s likely to make things worse.
Why? Because most people buy something like a knee brace and use the protection to continue doing their sport, believing that they can’t make the problem worse because they have protected their knee.
This is completely wrong.
Gradual onset muscle pains are created by muscle tightness, which causes a bone position change and creates movement compensations.
Pain around the knee in these cases is rarely caused by an issue at the knee itself and the psychological boost that wearing a knee brace can bring often pushes poeple to train harder than they would have if they weren’t wearing the brace.
And since it’s not actually the knee itself that’s the problem, the brace is doing nothing more than tricking the brain into thinking that it’s ok to train again, which will lead the problem to get worse.
Rest is one of the most common forms of advice – and again, if you’ve suffered an acute injury, then I agree, avoiding activity is a good idea.
But with gradual onset, and chronic pains, muscle tightness is the cause and in these cases, resting will only serve to alleviate the pain until you start exercising again.
Why? Because muscles have a natural twist in the fibres that gets tighter the more you exercise. Resting does nothing to unwind that twist, so although the pain might go while you’re resting, the twist in your muscles is still just as tight by the time you get back to training, and that’s why you’ll experience the pain again almost immediately when you try to train following your rest period.
Again, in acute conditions, ice can be useful to redue inflammation, but in chronic and gradual onset cases of pain, there is rarely any swelling to deal with, and it’s here where ice can actually make the situation worse.
Since muscle tightness is the cause of this type of pain, doing anything to increase the tightness will simply make the problem worse, and cold temperatures will do that – including ice.
If often goes unnoticed though, because ice also creates a numbing sensation, which eases the pain. So we think that by applying ice, we’re actually helping, when in fact, it’s making the problem worse – or at the very least, doing nothing to unwind the twist in the muscle fibres that’s causing the problem in the first place.
Using a simple elasticated bandage is recommended for helping to control swelling in acute cases, but in most choronic and gradual onset cases, there is no swelling, compression may actually do more harm than good.
Why? Because the excessive twist in the muscle fibres causes a compression of the blood vessels which deliver oxygen and healing nutrients to the muscles and joints. Further compressing these blood vessels using any kind of bandage may restrict this blood flow even more, or at the very least, using compression does nothing to unwind the excessive twist in the muscle fibres that is causing the problem in the first place.
With gradual onset and chronic pain situations, massage is often one of the most sought after treatments because it makes us feel good afterwards, but can also make the problem worse.
Why? Because massage is generally focused on the back, or the outside of the body, which is where all the symptoms are. Massage therapists are trained to find “knots” in the muscles and use rhythmical strokes to remove them.
Unfortunately, these “knots” are not the problem. They are created by an excessive lengthening of the muscles on the back and outside of the body, caused by an excessive shortening by the muscles on the front and the inside of the body.
Using massage strokes to force these “knots” to release may disrupt the stability of the joint and inadvertantly lead to a more severe injury.
So why do we feel better after a massage? Human touch is intensely comforting to another human being and this makes the brain relax and feel good. In addition, the rhythmical strokes of the massage forces blood through the tissue which makes the muscles feel better, but won’t do anything to make long-lasting changes to the twist in the muscle fibres that are causing the problem in the first place.
What WILL help then?
Movement aimed at unwinding the twist in the muscle fibres and reversing the bone position change that is causing the pressure on the areas of the body that you feel pain in.
A great example of that is my FREE Adductor Tightness Video Playlist. Simply follow along with me in each of the videos to get to the REAL cause of your knee pain, so you can get back to training pain free – quickly!
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