Whether you're incredibly fit or just starting on your fitness journey, some discomfort associated with your active lifestyle can be fairly common. Soreness, muscle fatigue, aches, and minor pains are part of the process of building strength and endurance. What if you start experiencing more significant pain, joint tenderness, and/or chronic soreness or discomfort (the kind that won't go away with rest)? These could all be signs that it's time to get some professional help. And a physical therapist (PT) can be a great place to start.
According to Charlie Johnson, PT, DPT, OCS, "Pain is your body's alarm system, its way of telling you something's not quite right." Dr. Johnson suggests that someone find a PT when pain begins to inhibit function or performance. When evaluating patients, he uses a "stop light" analogy, using the colors red, yellow, and green to understand the pain in relation to the activity causing it. (It's also a great self-assessment tool to use on your fitness journey.)
- Red: An activity where you feel pain during, the pain remains after, and it perhaps worsens later that day/night.
- Yellow: An activity where you feel some low-level discomfort while performing an activity, but it subsides immediately or soon after the activity ends and is not worse later.
- Green: An activity were you can move pain free and have no residual issues after the activity ceases.
If you find yourself in the red category, Dr. Johnson recommends putting a hold on the activity until the symptoms subside — it'll prevent aggravation of the condition or causing greater pain. Once you are in the yellow category, you could continue the activity with modifications to help decrease symptoms. Dr. Johnson explains that yellow is a good time to seek the advice of a PT as newer, acute conditions are often easier to treat than chronic long-standing problems. The earlier the problem is treated, the better the chances of full recovery.
If you decide you are ready for a physical therapist, how do you choose one and what should you expect? Experience, time, and attention are the key elements. Here are good questions to ask:
- Does your PT have a doctorate and/or did they do a residency in physical therapy?
- Will they be the ones treating you or will you be seen by an assistant, aide, or athletic trainer?
- Will they spend time to develop a working relationship with you, including taking a full account of your physical history? Dr. Johnson notes a thorough evaluation should last 60 to 90 minutes and should include movement, strength, and range-of-motion assessment.
Once the movements that trigger the pain can be identified, your PT may use hands-on treatment (manual therapy like massage) followed by specific corrective exercises to treat your condition. You'll likely have "homework," meaning exercises to do at home (typically three to five different moves or sequences of stretches and exercises). If the injury is recent, you might feel relief after a week of treatment and/or after a few sessions. Longer-standing or more severe, chronic conditions could require six to eight weeks of two to three sessions a week to resolve the problem. The frequency and length of treatment is something you will decide with your PT.
Dr. Johnson cautions that "there's no magic pill for most conditions" and shares that open communication about your treatment plan, including what is working or not working, is the best way to get relief fast. Bottom line: don't wait until the pain or discomfort has become a constant companion, find a qualified therapist, and be ready to fully commit to getting better whether that includes rest, rehab, or some combination of both. Short-term cessation of the activity may be frustrating, but being able to resume your activity faster without recurring issues is a worthwhile tradeoff!