How could a sports injury like an ankle sprain, a meniscus tear, or even a broken bone actually be good for you? It seems counter-intuitive, I know. And the answer might surprise you.
Before we get to that, let's first define what an injury actually is. An injury happens when you ask a particular body part to do a job that is beyond its capacity, and it fails. That failure can be small or big; minor to catastrophic. For example, a bruise is an injury caused by an impact to the skin with more force than the capillaries can withstand, causing them to rupture. A fracture is an injury caused when a bone is given more load than it can withstand, and the bone breaks. Both of these are injuries, even though their severity is very different.
But here's the thing: Contrary to popular belief, most injuries are the result of a series of things going wrong over time—not just from a single traumatic event. Even though your back seemed to "go out" all of a sudden, chances are you had problems well before the pain started, perhaps for a long time, but they just weren't severe enough to cause you meaningful pain until now.
The three most common (and preventable) causes of injury are:
1. Things that are too tight. Muscles, ligaments, tendons, or connective tissue that are too short or too taut force your body to move abnormally, limiting range of motion in your joints and inviting injury.
2. Things that are too weak. When the muscles whose job it is to support and protect your joints aren't up to the tasks you're giving them, allowing injury to happen.
3. Bad training or technique. When poor form, overtraining, or inadequate recovery force certain parts of your body to do more work than they're designed to do, increasing your risk of injury.
Since none of these problems develop overnight, and none of them cause noticeable pain or disability in the early stages, sometimes it's hard to realize they're actually happening, or even worsening over time. After all, you can still play your sport, pick up your kids, and make it through your workday without too much discomfort. A little stiffness, soreness, and tightness are pretty normal, right? Especially since you're getting older?
It's easy to write off these minor aches and pains as simply a function of pushing hard in your workouts, or as a normal part of aging. After all, isn't that what everyone around you is experiencing?
And then all it takes is a "last straw" moment—one last insult to the gradually worsening joint that pushes it over the pain threshold—and you're hurting; sometimes a lot. And even though you've had issues worsening over time, it may seem like your injury happened "out of the blue.”
Which brings us to why injuries are actually good for you.
Our bodies are good at absorbing pretty big amounts of abuse, but at some point they'll put their foot down and force us to address the problems we’ve been putting off for so long. When you have enough pain or disability to force you to stop doing the things you love to do, or need to do in your life, it tends to grab your attention. If you can't walk or sit or dress yourself, suddenly you’re very motivated to do something about it.
When you get an injury severe enough to seek treatment, three things will happen that might not have otherwise:
1. You’ll fix your current problem. You'll get out of pain by giving your body what it needs to heal, and correct the mobility and stability problems that led to your injury.
2. You’ll prevent future problems. Because you understand how your injury happened in the first place, you'll be able to make simple changes to your daily life that prevent the same issues from recurring.
3. You may feel better and perform better than before you got hurt. Since you may have had low-grade mechanical problems developing over time that triggered your injury in the first place, the simple preventative maintenance you learn can also boost physical performance in your sport, making life easier and more comfortable than it was before.
None of these beneficial results might never have happened if you hadn't gotten hurt in the first place. Which is why a painful, debilitating event like an injury can have a very real silver lining. After all, pain is a powerful motivator, and it can convince you to take care of issues that you may not have otherwise.
If you're an athlete, your job is to test your own limits. That means sometimes you're going to find them. Getting hurt is not failure, it's a natural part of your quest to become a better, higher-functioning version of you. View your injuries as an opportunity to learn more about the amazing "soft machine" you've been born into. With a little bit of additional effort, you can learn how to maintain it and get more high-performing mileage out of it. I guarantee you'll be happy with your investment.
*This article first appeared on Dr. Bockmann’s website, AustinSpineAndSport.com