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Is It Ever Safe to Play Through the Pain?

From sprains and bruises to muscle soreness, when athletes get injured, it’s common to see them “walk it off” and continue playing. But when should an injury mean an end to time on the field? 

Some injuries may appear to be mild, but continual activity could cause further damage. For example, tissue injuries are usually less severe than bone, tendon and ligament injuries, which take much longer to heal. 

Determining Extent of Injury Is Key 

While repetitive movement and stress on bones, muscles and joints can cause soreness, pain is another thing altogether. Pain is the most common symptom associated with injury, and there’s a clear distinction between pain and soreness. 

  • Pain: Can be acute or chronic discomfort and can feel different ways, including stabbing, radiating or throbbing.

  • Soreness: Feels like a dull ache that shows up between eight and 24 hours after repetitive movement in a joint or muscle. Soreness may linger for up to 48 hours after vigorous activity. 

With soreness, a person should be able to safely continue playing without further injury. But debilitating pain, when a person struggles with regular range of motion, usually indicates an injury that could worsen with continued activity. 

Signs a doctor may look for to assess whether it’s safe to keep playing include: 

●      Type of injury, from sprains and strains to tears or breaks.

●      Level of pain, from tolerable to intolerable.

●      Range of motion, from full to limited to none.

Without Attention, Some Injuries Can Get Worse 

Concussion is serious, so it’s essential to diagnose and treat it quickly. Most league-level sports have concussion protocols that are strict guidelines for what to do if a player is suspected of having a concussion. If concussion isn’t treated quickly, the effects of the injury can have far-reaching and sometimes debilitating consequences., including:

  • Eye pain and blurry vision

  • Memory loss, brain fog and attention issues

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Balance issues (vertigo, dizziness), which can lead to falls 

  • Brain swelling, which could cause a stroke

  • Epilepsy

Other injuries may appear to be mild, but they can worsen without rest, rehabilitation and treatment. For instance, if you have tendinitis (swelling and inflammation of a tendon after an injury), increased physical activity could worsen your injury. In such cases, you should rest instead. 

Other injuries that can worsen without rest and rehabilitation include: 

  • Fractures, which can lead to blood clots and joint, muscle, ligament or nerve damage

  • Tears or rupture in soft tissue, which can result in permanent loss of range of motion, chronic pain, instability and arthritis  

Play Smart, Even If You’re Not a Pro 

Pressure to perform well, worries about letting teammates down or wanting to finish a game may make you hesitant to take injuries seriously, but prevention is better than cure. In some cases, playing through an injury could even jeopardize a career if the injury worsens. 

Coaches or team doctors can advise about whether an athlete should keep playing after an injury. If you aren’t being monitored and are doing an activity alone — even outside sports — listen to your body. Don’t push it past its limits and when in doubt, sit out. 

If you suspect you have a serious injury, see your doctor immediately.

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