Think about the last time you got injured. Maybe you sprained an ankle or sustained a stress fracture. Were you back to 100 percent (or at least close to it) in next to no time? Or did the injury seem to linger – and the recovery process drag on?
Certainly every injury is different. However, why is it that some people – such as pro athletes – often seem to recover faster than others? Experts say some big factors may be out of your control, such as genetics (the same physical gifts that, say, make a person faster and stronger may speed recovery, too) and having hyper-ready access to world-class care that allows for treatment and rehab at much more regular intervals.
Still, there are things most people can do to speed recovery. Taking a page from those who tend to bounce back quickest, here are a few tips from health pros:
Stay in good shape to begin with. You’d hope that pro athletes would take care of their bodies to the max, says Airelle Hunter-Giordano, an associate director of clinical services and assistant professor in the physical therapy department at the University of Delaware. But you needn’t be training all the time, like an elite athlete, to make regular exercise – at least 150 minutes weekly of moderate intensity exercise, like brisk walking – a priority. Knowing your body will also help you in recognizing injury and in working toward recovery, experts say. That also means you’d be less likely to rest too much – while also being in tune with your body to know when you’re pushing too hard.
Promptly seek medical attention. “I think getting an early diagnosis can be very helpful to kind of set things on the right path,” says Dr. Mederic Hall, a sports medicine specialist with University of Iowa Health Care. While you needn’t run to the doctor at the first sign of discomfort, you shouldn’t delay seeking medical attention if you think you’ve hurt yourself, especially, Hall says, if your pain is impacting your activity level. And, of course, go to the doctor immediately for obvious injuries like a broken bone.
Find a specialist with experience treating your injury. For orthopedic injuries, many experts recommend seeing a sports medicine doctor with experience treating professional or collegiate athletes who keeps up on the latest treatments. Whomever you see – once diagnosed – make sure you’re going to a clinician with experience treating your specific injury. “I see anybody that’s trying to keep active – I consider all of that sports medicine,” says Dr. Michael Fredericson, sports medicine physiatrist and director of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Stanford Health Care, an academic health system affiliated with Stanford University School of Medicine that’s based in Redwood City, California. “To me one of the benefits of being a team physician working with high level athletes is I can take that approach and the way we are really pushing the limits of getting people better as quickly as we can … to my regular patients – the weekend warrior.”
Set a plan for recovery – and stick with it. Understand that treatment is only the beginning. For example, surgery to repair a torn ACL in the knee is not a quick fix, Giordano says. Patients must work closely with a team of care providers, from a specialist to a physical therapist to determine what rehab is needed, and do the hard work to complete it.
Expect some discomfort. Giordano says it’s not exactly a case of “no pain, no gain.” You don’t want to overdo it. But you want to continue being active in prescribed ways. “It depends on the injury, but we are finding more that sometimes too much rest is a problem,” she says. Hall points out that some people will of their own volition nurse an injury – perhaps not putting any weight on a tender ankle for fear of pain – when activity is exactly what’s need to encourage healing. If you have a stress fracture, that injury needs and is going to respond better to a period of rest, he says. “But if you have something like an Achilles tendon problem, after a short period of activity modifications, we’ve found that just prolonged rest for many of those injuries actually doesn’t help,” Hall says. Instead, a rehab program tailored to the injury is needed.
Get adequate sleep – and eat well while you’re awake. Two things that are definitely critical to recovering from an injury are sleep and nutrition, Fredericson says. “If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not going to heal, and if you’re not getting proper nutrition, you’re not going to heal.”
Fredericson says researchers speculate that deep sleep helps improve athletic performance, since it’s when a person is sleeping that growth hormone is released. “Growth hormone stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning, and helps athletes recover,” he says, and everyone – non-athletes included – stands to benefit from sleep-promoting hormonal balance. “Studies show that sleep deprivation slows the release of growth hormone,” he adds.
In regards to nutrition, calcium and vitamin D are critical for healing broken bones, he says. And experts say it’s not just about cherry-picking a few nutrients, while eating poorly otherwise, but having a well-rounded diet. That ranges from consuming adequate protein to heal tissue to steering clear of eating too much junk food or processed food, which tends to create excess inflammation that can slow healing, Fredericson says.
Be circumspect about anti-inflammatories. While you certainly don’t want to eat a diet that contributes to inflammation, it’s also important not to mindlessly pop pills or get injections in the name of reducing inflammation from an injury without being sure that’s what you need. “Inflammation has been blamed for many health problems, and Hall says he thinks many people’s knee jerk reaction to any injury is they need anti-inflammatories – “whether that’s something over the counter like ibuprofen or something stronger like a cortisone injection.”
An anti-inflammatory injection may help, say, for arthritis in the knee to reduce inflammation caused by the condition and decrease pain, he says – thereby allowing a person to perhaps move more easily and with less discomfort. But research has found that for soft tissue sports-related injuries, anti-inflammatories really don’t do anything to accelerate healing, Hall says. “They may make people feel better for a time, but they often end up actually slowing the overall recovery process,” he says.
Hall says for things like ankle sprains and chronic tendon problems, anti-inflammatories are of limited use, since inflammation is part of the healing cascade, or process. “Sometimes suppressing that [inflammation] may actually suppress healing over the long term,” he says. As with other steps taken toward recovery, it’s important to tailor the approach to the injury, experts emphasize – so that you can safely get back at it as quickly as possible.