9 Best Options in Pain Management for Athletes

Are you an athlete in pain? These physical challenges can sideline you, whether you experience pain when you train or an acute injury during the game. To stay active, you need to know why you have pain, how you can change the way you respond to it, and what you can do to relieve it safely.

At MOSH, our orthopedic specialists work with recreational and professional athletes to get them back to peak performance using multiple pain relief techniques. Here are the top 9 best options used in pain management for athletes.

Pain and Athletes

Our bodies experience the world around us through sensory inputs like taste, sight, and sound. Our sense of touch provides different levels of stimulus through specialized receptors. When triggered by an event that might cause injury, the pain receptors in our skin and other tissues immediately start a chain reaction of chemicals that travel along your nerves to your brain, alerting you to an unpleasant situation. Your brain then decides what to do to stop that feeling. If you touch a hot stove, the pain receptors in your hand send a “danger” warning to your brain, and you pull your hand back. You may not have burned yourself, but the potential for damage was there, and your body warned you about it.

Therefore, pain, although unpleasant, serves an essential purpose – it’s the body’s way of communicating a potential problem or injury. Elite athletes depend on pain. “An athlete’s ability to tolerate pain is essential to success. Pain provides valuable information about your body and how it is performing. To maximize its usefulness, it is important to understand what kind of pain should be listened to and what type is helpful or safe to work through,” writes the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Not All Pain is the Same

From fatigue to sore muscles to sudden shooting pain, athletes experience an array of discomfort. It is often said that athletes are comfortable being uncomfortable. Athletes have been proven to have a higher pain tolerance than non-athletes, which is how most athletes push through the pain of training. This level of grit makes it imperative for athletes to understand whether their type of pain is “good pain” or “bad pain.”

Good Pain

If you play professional sports or work out, you know there is some truth to the phrase “no pain, no gain.” Exercise can create mild inflammation, microtears in the muscle and surrounding tissue, and lactic acid build-up, creating stiffness and soreness. These minimal pain sensations, also known as “good pain,” are the result of pushing our bodies past our current limits to increase strength and endurance.

Sometimes, we can experience Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), which creates an ache that starts a couple of days after an unfamiliar or intense exercise. Most “good pain” or DOMS are short-term and will decrease after a few days on their own.

Bad Pain

“Bad pain” results from more substantial harm to the structures of your body. Sometimes the “bad pain” is sudden (acute pain), and there is a severe injury, like broken bones. Other times, we mistake significant damage for the usual aches of exercise. Some “bad pain” symptoms to watch for include:

  • sharp or stabbing pain
  • persistent and unrelenting pain
  • intense pain that causes weakness, fainting, vomiting, or nausea
  • fever or chills that accompany pain
  • redness, swelling, or bruising
  • limited range of motion or inability to move the affected area
  • worsening pain
  • insomnia or trouble sleeping because of pain
  • limping
  • a “hot” feeling in painful areas
  • open wounds or drainage
  • pain that does not get better with rest, pain relievers, or ice/heat

Should You Push Through the Pain?

A common mistake athletes make is treating all pain like it’s “good pain,” but an injury with severe pain is not the same thing as muscle fatigue. This mix-up leads to many athletes fearing a disruption in their training to such a degree that they push through injury, avoid treatment, and sometimes ignore their physicians’ recommendations. They don’t realize that they risk permanent injury and jeopardize or complicate recovery when injuries are compounded by neglect.

There are numerous stories about professional athletes who played through pain and injury only to damage their careers. One of the most notable stories is of NHL hockey player Pat LaFontaine of the New York Rangers. After sustaining numerous traumatic brain injuries, the league refused to clear LaFontaine to return to the ice. Despite this, The Rangers ultimately allowed LaFontaine to play through another season, resulting in another concussion. LaFontaine never played hockey again and now copes with the long-term effects of post-concussion syndrome.

LaFontaine would not have been able to reverse the effects of his concussions, but he could have mitigated further consequences had he followed the league’s and his doctors’ advice.

When pain is ignored, it can be dangerous. It would be best if you didn’t always tough it out, especially in the instance of an injury. Treat the injury first and stay active only under the advisory of your sports medicine physician. In lesser cases, especially when pain isn’t caused by trauma, it can be more challenging to know when it’s time to pull back from sports temporarily or permanently. Your doctor or athletic trainer will help you listen to your body and prescribe a treatment plan specific to your case.

Pain Management for Athletes: 9 Best Pain Relief Techniques

Pain management for athletes now includes many options that don’t involve narcotics. In the case of opioids, what once seemed like an easy pain reliever is now the cause of a national crisis of abuse and misuse. Increasingly, doctors are hesitant to prescribe opioid medication no matter the circumstances. The best way to alleviate pain is to treat the underlying cause of the discomfort, which is why seeing a physician when you experience “bad pain” is so important. Whether you are having “good pain” or “bad pain,” you can use these pain relief methods that don’t include dangerous narcotics.

1. The RICE Method

RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Resting or immobilizing the joint or area of injury allows your body time to heal. Icing the area, wrapping the injury, and raising the area above your heart can improve healing time and manage pain.

2. Over-The-Counter Pain Medications

In most areas, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol) are available over the counter. These medications reduce inflammation and pain, have few to no side effects, and should be taken as instructed.

3. Injections

There are several non-narcotic injections to help ease the pain so that you can heal faster. These include:

  • Steroid Injections: Hormones like cortisone or prednisone are injected into the injured area to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation, promoting healing. Sometimes these shots can be used as a diagnostic tool.
  • Viscosupplementation Injections: Often only used in the knee, this is an injection of hyaluronic acid that mimics the fluid in the knee. Viscosupplemental injections don’t repair the damage, but they allow the knee to move while reducing friction, which reduces pain and helps mobility.
  • Platelet-Rich Plasma Injections: This regenerative therapy, known as PRP, injects a concentration of your blood’s healing factors. PRP treatments help promote muscle healing and aid in reducing pain, swelling, and inflammation. Athletes that have used this pain management technique include Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant.
  • Stem Cell Injections: Injections of stem cells work like an advanced PRP therapy. The shots encourage healing, repair, and regrowth of the injured tissue. A faster recovery means less pain from the injury.

4. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy (PT) is one of the best ways to reduce pain and recover from an injury. A physical therapist will provide exercises for you to do that will strengthen the support muscles, increase flexibility, and restore function. PT not only promotes healing, but it also helps protect against future injury and long-term pain.

Physical therapy can also include Electrical Stimulation Therapy and Massage Therapy.

5. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine needles into points along your body to stimulate healing and relieve general muscle aches and chronic pain. Acupuncture has been used as a tool for wellness for over 2,500 years.

6. Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a mind-body therapy in which the patient learns to respond differently to physical or psychological triggers. During a session, a biofeedback practitioner will monitor your body functions like breathing and heart rate. Based on the results, they will suggest alternative ways to control those functions. For pain relief, the biofeedback sensors will teach you to recognize signs of pain you may not have noticed, and the practitioner may teach you muscle relaxation techniques and controlled breathing strategies when pain is felt.

7. Meditation

Meditation is an ancient practice involving clearing your mind and returning your thoughts to the present moment. It can apply physical and mental techniques for relaxation. Most importantly, meditation has been proven to be an effective way to manage pain for most people by reducing our sensitivity to pain and increasing the release of our natural pain-relieving chemicals.

8. Psychotherapy

Mental health is essential to our physical health, so psychotherapy can be critical to improving our quality of life. While psychotherapy may not reduce pain via a biological mechanism, it does help us control our emotions and reactions to pain, which reduces stress and aids in recovery time.

9. Surgery

Sometimes, the best pain management is surgery to repair the physical damage. In cases like these, the orthopedic surgeons and specialists at MOSH are experienced in treating your injury. They will work with you and your team physicians and athletic trainers all the way through recovery.

While recognizing the purpose of pain, it is equally important to know how to manage it. The more athletes understand their pain and what it’s communicating, the better they will be able to manage pain and master their sport. If you are experiencing acute or chronic pain, contact us at 414-817-5800 or 414-817-6750 to schedule an appointment or visit one of our Ortho Walk-In Clinics.

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