Reaching Painful Conclusions

Posted by Filed Under: Health & Fitness, Science and Research

running shortsOne of the most popular articles in last week’s online version of the New York Times was a story about whether it’s a good idea to run through pain. The high reader ranking wasn’t a surprise, even if the article’s placement in the fashion section was. The timing was perfect since newfound gym rats and overly enthusiastic runners are probably feelin’ it about now. A twinge to the outside of the knee. Dull ache in the arch of the foot.

The article says some doctors now believe resting an injury is not the answer to swifter healing; running on it is. This is, of course, music to any avid exerciser’s ears since sitting out an injury is usually just as difficult—moreso when there’s a personal goal on the line. Long-term relaxation just isn’t part of many runners’ routines.

Beyond broken bones or torn ligaments, these doctors say, it may be okay to continue running despite the pain. The article also advocates runners who do work through it first take a single anti-inflammatory pill, like aspirin or ibuprofen, and apply 20 minutes of cold therapy before hitting the road or trail. This will reduce the inflammation causing some of the pain. Reduced mileage and/or cross-training may also be part of the prescription.

The physicians that were interviewed were referring to chronic, dull pain often diagnosed as, say, tendonitis or arthritis. Sharp pain that only worsens over the duration of exercise demands medical attention. But not everyone has the same pain threshold; it isn’t always easy to know when something more serious is afoot. Nor does someone fixated on fitness or obsessed with weight always have the good sense to stop and seek medical help before resuming their regular routes after reading that running while hurt may be OK.

The author, Gina Kolata, also wrote a sidebar about following this unconventional advice while dealing with her own running woe: foot pain. Because the pain isn’t any worse when she runs or walks, there’s reason to believe the running helps. But she’s seeing a doctor to make sure she isn’t doing more damage.

Now that’s sound advice.

About Anne

Anne’s been running for so long that when two paths diverge in the woods, not only she does she know to go for the one with the most foreboding weeds, swarms of bees and steep, rocky climbs, but she convinces everyone else to come along. Then, before people are done cursing and nursing insect bites, bloody knees and poison oak outbreaks, she’ll again run — away. She eschews a lot of the newfangled devices that are supposed to make you a better runner because she believes it’s what you put into your body, not on it, that really matters. (Footwear is the exception.) That includes proper nourishment of the mind, which we all know is what really makes the difference on the road…and the trail…and the track. At some point she started to realize that not everyone has run into an Alaskan grizzly bear, been pegged by police as a robber, lost her shorts in a major marathon, rubbed elbows with Olympians, mistaken movie stars for beach bums and watched a wildfire consume her suburb - yes, while she was on a long run. Whether it’s these unique situations, or the universal ones every recreational runner encounters, after she lives it, she loves nothing better than to write about it at Run DMZ.

  1. Mark Iocchelli on January 15th at 10:46 am

    It is a really difficult balancing act isn’t it? I think the most important thing though is that distinction between sharp pain that doesn’t go away, and dull, achiness that is mostly around in between running.

    I had an experience running through lower back pain that I’d like to share but it would take too much space here. Perhaps I’ll write up an article?

  2. Anne on January 15th at 11:10 am

    Yes, Mark, please do write an article on your experience because I think there are others who’d like to know what happened. Lower back pain is one of those ailments that seems to eventually claim everyone that runs long enough.

  3. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on January 15th at 11:55 am

    My motto is to run through annoyance but not through pain. It helps that I have a high pain threshold and can usually tell pretty early when something is wrong and how long I can use it before it gets to the point where bad things are going to happen.

  4. Jeanne on January 15th at 1:36 pm

    and i’ll toss in my 2 cents; which is that running helped to ease my severe back pain considerably, to the point where it is now bearable again.

  5. IHateToast on January 16th at 3:25 pm

    ha! no kidding! not only do people have different pain thresholds, they have to factor in adrenaline and endorphins. and the “whuddathunkit” problem. i fractured my neck of femur at the end of the HNL marathon and had noooo idea. thought it was bursitis. finished. a bit slower, but i got that medal. now i have 2 pins in my butt. so perhaps i shouldn’t have kept running when i started to feel wonky, but it never occurred to me that it was a bone problem. itb? bursitis? just another marathon ache?
    but… i’ve run through other pains (and lawn sprinklers) and came out okay. aaaah the joys.

  6. Dr. Lee Miller D.C. on January 16th at 4:11 pm

    As a health care provider, we use CATBITES to assess bone injuries. This stands for:
    C-congenital (born with it)
    B-blood disorders
    S-soft tissue

    So there can be more to an injury than meets the eye. I suggest people try to use common sense when they self diagnose and treat because unfortunately- you don’t know what you don’t know, and in some cases ignorance is definitely not bliss!