How To Tell Good Pain From Bad Pain


Sometimes sore isn’t a good thing. (Photo by Dirima/iStock/Getty Images)

Pain may start as a minor tweak or a twinge. At first it may hurt only when you move a certain way, but it soon morphs into a chronic pain. From knees to shoulders to elbows to ankles and every other body part, an active lifestyle makes it likely that you’ll experience inexplicable aches or pains.

Figuring out when it’s safe to work through the pain or when to stop and see a doctor can be difficult. “Pain is a protective mechanism to avoid damage,” says Steven Gausewitz, M.D., chief of staff at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. “Whenever you have substantial pain, it’s a sign you’re doing too much or doing it too fast.” We’ve compiled the most common workout pains and explained how to tell the difference between those you can work through and those that may be damaging.

1. Mid-Back and Upper-Back Pain Lifting weights and feeling a twinge between your shoulder blades may simply be a sign of bad lifting technique. Lifting too quickly can also cause a tweak of the spine, says Dr. Gausewitz, “although sometimes neck problems create referred pain to the shoulder blades.” Be sure you’re using the correct weight to allow you to perform your repetitions with proper form.

SIGNS OF A BAD PAIN: See an orthopedic sports doctor if you experience sharp, stabbing pain or have difficulty breathing, says David Geier, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon in Charleston, South Carolina. “It could suggest a more serious condition, such as a thoracic herniated disc.” In some cases, pain between your shoulder blades may be a sign of a heart attack. If you’ve never experienced this sensation and it is accompanied by chest pain and breathlessness, call 911 immediately.

Related: Moves to Do Every Day for Better Joint Mobility

2. Knee Pain Knee pain can occur suddenly or begin as a crunchy sound and turn into a chronic ache that hurts while climbing stairs. “For the most part, knee injuries are rarely an emergency unless you’re lifting heavy weight and tear something,” says Dr. Gausewitz. Pain while walking down stairs, for example, is often due to patellofemoral problems, during which you feel discomfort behind the kneecap and a grating sound in the knee if the leg is extended straight. You can work through it by avoiding exercises that trigger the pain (such as lunges and deep squats) and modifying exercises such as squats by squatting only within a pain-free range of motion.

SIGNS OF A BAD PAIN: Hearing a pop at the time of the injury, significant swelling within the knee or buckling or locking of the knee can indicate a serious injury and should be checked by a sports-medicine doctor, says Dr. Geier. “These symptoms indicate a possible torn ligament or meniscus tear.”

3. Shoulder Pain If you feel pain in your shoulder or a sudden heavy catch or snap while lifting something overhead, you may have strained or injured the rotator cuff muscles responsible for stabilizing the shoulder. “It may start out as a simple impingement syndrome, one of the most common causes of shoulder pain,” says Dr. Geier. This occurs when the shoulder blade puts pressure on the rotator-cuff muscles. Arthritis or bursitis may also be behind the pain. For simple strains, ice, avoiding overhead activities, anti-inflammatories and cortisone injections usually resolve the problem.

SIGNS OF A BAD PAIN: If your shoulder feels as if it’s coming out of the socket or you experience severe pain and swelling, you may have a tear or other serious injury and should be evaluated by a doctor. Some cases may require surgery.

4. Foot Pain If you feel pain in the middle of your heel or along the arch while running and it’s particularly painful when you first step out of bed in the morning, you may have plantar fasciitis. This inflammation of the connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot occurs on the underside of the heel and increases the risk of knee pain over time. “It can take a long time to get rid of,” says Elizabeth Matzkin, M.D., assistant professor in the department of orthopedic surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

If you suspect plantar fasciitis, avoid speed work and hill training. Massage, anti-inflammatories, supportive footwear, and ice can also help. “Flip-flops offer zero support and can contribute to plantar fasciitis symptoms,” says Matzkin. Take preventive measures by gradually increasing training mileage, replacing worn running shoes and running on soft surfaces instead of asphalt or concrete.

SIGNS OF A BAD PAIN: If the pain lasts for more than a few weeks, see a sport podiatrist. Treatments include orthotics, cortisone injections, splints and anti-inflammatories.

Related: 5 Mistakes Runners Make When Training for a Race

5. Shin Pain If you run the same route every day or recently took your run from the treadmill to the asphalt, your shins may become painful. Pain may start in the front of your ankle and continue up to your kneecap in some cases. Shin splints can cause pain during your run as well as afterward. Shin splints refer to an inflammation of the bone usually caused by overuse. Decrease your mileage at the first sign of shin splints – they could lead to a stress fracture if left untreated. Ice, rest and anti-inflammatories help.

SIGNS OF A BAD PAIN: If, after modifying your mileage, icing and resting, the pain does not decrease or subside, seek medical attention. In some extreme cases, shin splints manifesting as severe stress fractures may require surgery.

The original article “10 Ways to Tell Good Pain from Bad Pain“ appeared on LIVESTRONG.COM.

By Linda Melone

Read more from LIVESTRONG.COM:

Use a Dynamic Warm-Up to Boost Your Workout

10 Common Workout Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Why Sprinting Isn’t Just for Athletes