What to do if it hurts when I exercise???

“Pain is gain”… that might be true if you call damaging your body “gain”.

We hear it all the time.  “Pain is gain”.  It’s every meat heads favorite saying.  One problem though, pain is not gain, pain is an indicator that damage is occurring in your body.  The simple way to understand this is that we have special sensory nerve cells in our body called nociceptors.  The nociceptor’s job is simple, tell us when damage is occurring or is about to occur.  Exercise, is not about damage, so no, pain is NOT gain.

So how do we know what pain is good and what pain is bad?  Today, we are covering the bad pains.  Later we will come back and we will cover the good “pains”, which we will refer to as discomforts for the rest of the article to clarify that pain is not gain, but growth isn’t always comfortable.

Bad Pains and injury warning signs –

  • Sharp – Plain and simple, stop what you are doing any time you feel a sharp pain while exercising. Sharpness is common to overstressing tendons, ligaments and muscles, and as such is a good indicator that damage is either already occurring or is going to occur soon.
  • Pulling/Straining – What one person calls sharp another person calls “pulling”. Where you feel it is the usual difference.  When the pulling feeling is in a joint, people typically call it sharp (ligaments and tendons being damaged).  When it’s in a muscle, people usually then refer to it as pulling or straining.  Either way, it’s still damage, and for the same reasons mentioned above with sharp pain, you should stop what you are doing, assess for damage and be sure to treat any problems that may have developed to prevent them from getting worse.
  • Clamping/spasms – There are many reasons that a muscle may spasm. Some are chemical and some are as a result of muscular imbalances.  Either way, when muscle spasms occur the body will most likely be incapable of performing the exercise correctly, creating a high likely hood of error that could result in injury.
  • Bruised feeling (or bruising itself when no impact event has occurred) – A bruise can occur for many reasons, but if it occurred and you had no impact event (such as bumping into something), you may have torn something. Unfortunately, many people make errors both in programming of their workouts and in form of their exercise which result in minor tears to muscles, tendons and ligaments.  If the tears are small enough the pain may be quite insignificant, but bruising is an easy indicator that the damage has occurred.  If this occurs, stopping what they are doing and treating the injury properly can help someone avoid turning a minor injury into something major.
  • Popping that is painful – Joints make popping noises (think knuckle cracking). Other things make popping noises.  If they don’t hurt, don’t worry.  If they hurt, stop.  When you crack your knuckles, the snap crackly pop sound that everybody hears is from synovial fluid rushing back into a space in a joint.  This process would not induce pain so a popping noise that does hurt indicates something else is wrong.  You should immediately seek the help of someone who knows how to assess dysfunction as this is a high indicator that there is an injury or muscular imbalance affecting you.
  • Grinding feeling – Often ignored, if you feel grinding, you are likely causing damage. A small amount of grinding often isn’t painful but it is still damage and should be avoided when possible.
  • Pinching – Some people use a pinching feeling to describe the feeling in a joint as the result of a tight muscle pulling incorrectly. Typically this can be addressed by stretching and or self myofascial release (Foam rolling).  If tension in a muscle is not the issue, alignment of your body for the exercise is the usual culprit (think feet out of position for a squat).  If you rotate a joint into the uncomfortable range (over rotate your elbow for example), this is the pain we are referencing.  When you increase force on the joint through an exercise, the room for error that a hinge joint such as the knee or elbow has reduces.

Those are your primary pains and indicators.  Remember though, everybody feels things differently, so if it’s close to something above be careful and have it assessed.  Find a qualified trainer who has experience working with pain management and injury prevention and find out if something is wrong before it becomes something big!