A proverb I hear about once a week from my physical therapy patients is, “Hey, no pain, no gain, right?” It’s an especially difficult question to answer because the answer is, as with many things in life, ‘it depends’.

When one of my physical therapy patients tells me that something hurts during an exercise they are performing, my first question is always “does it hurt or is it hard?” About 95% of the time, the activity is simply difficult and is effectively working the area they’re targeting. If a movement truly is producing pain, there are a few adjustments we try to make before completely discarding it.

Generally speaking, here a few questions to ask yourself if pain or discomfort pops up whether you’re exercising or just doing things around the house:

  • Did the area feel better after 24 hours of rest? If it did, try the activity again. If there’s no more issue, you should be safe to continue. If the pain returns a second time, or if it took longer than 24 hours to go away, you should find something else to do.
  • Can you do the same movement at a lighter weight? Let’s say a 10-pound bicep curl hurts your elbow but 7 pounds seems fine. You’re fine to continue at the lighter weight and gradually work your way back up. If you cannot find a reasonable weight, you should discontinue the exercise or movement.
  • Can you shorten the range of motion? If you get pain at the top of an overhead press but feel fine stopping at 75% of your max range, keep working in the shorter range. If you can’t do at least 50% of the full range, it’s time to cut that movement out for now.
  • Can you find a different exercise for the same body part? If squats hurt your knee, you might find that a lunge or step-up is pain free. All three of those exercises work your lower body in similar ways and can be easily substituted for one another. If bending and flexing your knee is painful under any kind of load, it’s time to see your physical therapist or physician.

There are some exceptions to these guidelines. Pain that would be described as aching, tight, burning, or weak are generally okay to experiment with. However, pain that would be described as sharp, stabbing or causes the body part to give out, should always be avoided.

Imagine that you stepped on a Lego while letting your dog out late one night, as I happened to have done a month ago. If there is a little dull pain the next day, but you’re able to walk normally, it should be fine to stick with your normal activities and allow the healing process to proceed.  If you’re unable to walk without your leg collapsing and there is a lightning bolt with each step, you would be best advised to take it easy for a couple of days and protect the area. It may also be a good idea to make sure the kids pick up their toys before bed, as is now policy in the Samyn household. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention…