Sunday, January 2, 2022

Pain Does Not Mean You're Injured

I had niggles most of the time when I was training seriously. Especially after a good block of training. If I tried running hard for consecutive days, my left knee usually would start to hurt a little.

Most elite athletes I treat are similar, always dealing with pain and niggles. Some pain would disappear while other pain tend to persist and linger.

A recent article (Hoegh et al, 2021) suggests that in the context of sports medicine, pain and injuries are 2 different distinct entities and should not be lumped together.

That article (Hoegh et al, 2021) suggests that when pain is inappropriately labeled as an injury, it creates fear and anxiety. It may even change how we move the affected body part, creating further problems.

From Hoegh et al, 2021
An example given in the article is patellofemoral joint pain, an extremely common diagnosis assigned to runners by sports doctors, physiotherapists etc. This just means that there is pain around/ inside the knee joint but they cannot figure out exactly why it's hurting. Compare this to patella tendinopathy where there is a clinically identifiable cause for pain (wear and tear in the tendon).

Reading words like stabbing pain or burning sensations can affect how you feel. When we complain of pain, it may feel like something is damaged. However, as I often tell my patients, pain is subjective. To my patient it may feel like a 3 out of 10 kind of pain, but to me it may be an 8 out of 10 pain. Or vice versa. Pain can occur and exist even without an injury.

Pain can be influenced by beliefs, the process of cognition (knowing and perceiving), expectations and circumstances. Injuries are not. The onset of pain can be unpredictable, and how severe the pain is does not usually depend on the stage of healing.

Injuries can be identified by sight, orthopaedic tests and scans. The prognosis for an injury will depend on where the injury is. A muscle tear will usually heal faster than a bone fracture. 

After a sports injury, in order for the athlete to return to sport, we gradually increase their training load on their damaged tissue during rehabilitation until healing is complete and able to handle the demands of more strenuous training and competition.

With sports related pain, one cannot gradually increase training load and hope that the pain will go away. However, we can improve the patient's ability to manage the pain especially since pain is subjective.

If you have a bone stress fracture, you will have to take time off running until it heals and gradually increase load. Once healed, pain usually is no longer an issue. The injury and the associated pain are tightly connected. 

Other cases may not be as straight forward. An example would be patients who have chronic pain in their Achilles tendon with no damage on their MRI scans. There is no clear link between the physical state of their tendon and how it feels (or hurts). In such cases, surely we can manage and reduce their pain to allow them to run rather than waiting for their tendon to 'heal'. 

Another recent publication by Friedman et al (2021) warn of the dangers of diagnostic labels. Calling a patient's knee injury a meniscal tear rather than a meniscal strain may nudge the patient to opt for arthroscopic surgery even though that may not be considered the best approach.

According to the authors (Friedman et al, 2021), words chosen by medical professionals to describe injuries may present a situation as considerably worse than it actually is. This will increase anxiety and cause fear of movement.

Judging what pain to ignore and which ones to take seriously can be a delicate art rather than science and how we choose to label it can affect the outcome.

Sometimes pain is just pain.


Friedman DJ, Tulloch D, and Khan KM (2021). peeling Off Musculoskeletal Labels: Sticka and Stones May Break My Bones, But Diagnostic Labels Can Hamstring Me Forever. BJSM. 55: 1184-1185. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-103998.

Hoegh M, Stanton T, George S et al (2021). Pain Or Injury? Why Differentiation Matters In Exercise And Sports Medicine. BJSM. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2021-104633.

No comments:

Post a Comment