As the weather starts to improve, we find ourselves getting back outdoors tackling all the spring chores. Often we find ourselves paying the price with aching muscles and joints. It’s overuse syndrome.
Unless you’ve exercised all of your muscle groups regularly throughout the winter months, most people will experience some degree of aches and pains as they become more active. Some will experience minor discomforts of overuse; others, more severe strains and sprains. Overuse injuries can affect any area of the body. Common ailments include lower back strain; bursitis of the shoulders, knees, and hips; tendonitis of the elbows, shoulders, and knees; and general muscle pains in the neck, back, arms, and legs.
A strain is actually a microscopic tear in a muscle or tendon. A commonly used term is a “pulled muscle”. Any sudden increased use of a muscle can cause some degree of muscle damage. Pain occurs at the damaged site as the body releases chemicals to begin the healing process. This lets us know something is wrong and prevents us from doing more damage to the area. There can also be some swelling.
Similarly, a joint can be overworked with increased activity. Usually this is called a sprain and involves ligament, rather than muscle damage. Sprains of the lower back, knees, and ankles are common.
Now, if the muscles are toned or “in shape”, they are stronger and less prone to injury. The muscles help to support the joints beneath them. For example, the muscles in the shoulder (rotator cuff muscles) keep the shoulder joint in place. The stronger the rotator cuff muscles, the more stable the shoulder and less chance for injury. The same goes for the knee joint and the muscles of the leg (quads and hamstrings). Also, strong back and abdominal muscles can help prevent back aches by better supporting the spine.
Under the muscles, small sacs of fluid called bursa act as friction reducers as muscles and tendons slide with movement. These can become irritated with increased activity, leading to bursitis. Shoulders, hips, elbows, and knees are common areas of bursa inflammation.
Fortunately, most overuse injuries will heal on their own in time. Proper rest of the injured area and avoiding strenuous use promotes natural healing. This may include splinting an area to avoid using it too much, or use of an Ace Bandage or brace to limit mobility and reduce swelling.
Because tissue damage results in inflammation, anti-inflammatory medicines may be beneficial. These include ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. These medicines, as well as acetaminophen, can also reduce pain. Check with your doctor before starting any over the counter medication, as many medications can interact with each other.
Ice reduces inflammation and pain and is usually recommended within the first 24-48 hours. Application of a flexible cold pack can offer cool relief to strained and sprained areas. Keep the cold pack in place for about 15-20 minutes at a time. Heat can be used to increase circulation to the area to aid healing; usually it is recommended after 48-72 hours.
Ease yourself back into activities and try not to overdo it. Stretching and initial light exercise can warm up muscles before activities. This makes them more flexible. A regular daily exercise program will help keep your muscles toned. Finally, seek medical consultation if any injury does not respond to conservative treatment.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.