So You Got Injured, Now What?

Quick Summary:

  • Serious injuries need a diagnosis and tissue repair first
  • Start thinking of the body as one functioning unit as opposed to a series of independent conjoined parts
  • The pelvic girdle and spine influence every joint in the body, so start your rehabilitation process here, regardless if the injury lies elsewhere in the body
  • You have one spine. If you change the shape in one area, you decrease the ability to change the shape in another
  • The physical and emotional stress of an injury can often disrupt stable breathing mechanics, sometimes you need to relearn to breathe and brace correctly before any other method of rehabilitation will hold
  • The strength of the aerobic system is a predictor of recovery time
  • Some methods of rehabilitation are inherently stimulatory, some are inhibitory, you should take the state of your nervous system into account when choosing the modality of treatment you require, or if unable, switch modalities if one is ineffective for you.
  • There is almost always a way to train around an injury, it takes creativity, determination, and sometimes an experienced coach

Awhile back on Facebook, I asked people who follow the Blacksmith Fitness page what kind of injuries they had sustained that prevented them from training hard or enjoying their sport, and I received a diverse list ranging from quad tears to rotator cuff injuries, lower back strains, neck injuries etc. Originally I had planned of writing individual articles on how to manage each individual injury, how that injury may have affected movements mechanics via what mechanism, and what could be done to restore pain free motion to the joint in question; after reading the array of different cases, I realized that this wouldn’t be feasible nor would it be applicable to anyone but the person who posed the question, so instead I am going to address impaired movement in a more global perspective.

Get a Diagnoisis

The first thing you should do is get a diagnosis for a serious injury. If your shoulder, wrist, back etc. hurts all the time because of an acute or chronic injury you need to deal with the damaged tissue. Don’t be that guy that is always shooting in the dark with their own body. Once you have a diagnosis you can start to implement some of the strategies outline below.

Look for Predisposing Factors and Sites of Painless Dysfunction

Let’s use an example of a BJJ athlete with an anterior shoulder dislocation; often this athlete will consult a physiotherapist who will assist with tissue repair and re-stabilization of the joint, hopefully the physiotherapist takes into account the fact that our fighter just finished a 12 week fight preparation, aggressive weight cut and sodium loss, an emotionally taxing loss in an important tournament and most likely has a compromised nervous system, more on this later. Eventually the fighter should achieve full tissue healing and clearance to return the exercise; the only problem is that the fighter was sitting in anterior pelvic tilt, thoracic kyphosis, has poor ankle dorsiflexion, and has induced thoracic scoliosis due to anterior/posterior imbalance in the shoulder girdle. What does all this mean in plain English? Our athlete was creating the perfect storm for re-injury via the influence of other joints of which he had no pain in or awareness of dysfunction! But he knows that his shoulder clicks while going overhead and gets a “pinch” in his shoulder when loaded in certain planes.

No doubt at this point the athlete (or you!) would like to break this cycle, but how do you do it? Look for the site of dysfunctional synergist(s) muscles. Now true movement analysis simply cannot be reduced to a blog post, but you don’t always need to know exactly what’s wrong to start improving your chances of breaking the cycle, and that’s because the muscles of the torso and hip are synergists to almost every human movement.

If there’s one common theme that I’ve observed in in 90%+ of the injured athletes I’ve worked with pre or post surgery, is that they all have poor motor control of the anterior core and transverse abdominals, they have compromised posture and range of motion in the hip girdle, and they suck at bracing. Provided the injury is to one of the limbs (ankle, knee, shoulder, elbow, wrist etc.) there is no reason you cannot work on your control and strength in the muscles of the torso. Start lying on your back face up (dead bug position) and work on the ability to move the limbs in all directions with the entire back from the hip bones to the shoulder blades touching the ground. If the back raises from the floor then use smaller movements, or simply hold the supported position. You can have someone put a band under your back and try to pull it away as a check to make sure you aren’t making small errors. You will be surprised with how many extremely strong people struggle just to get their backs flat against the ground!

At this point you can progress to seated or standing torso control exercises, ensuring proper activation of the postural muscles before you move any of the extremities. Add some anti-rotational exercises by performing some side to side movement of the limbs and, congratulations! You are now more stable and at less risk of injury through all motions, both planned and reactionary.

Something I want to touch on quickly is the influence of spinal curvature on systemic movement. Simply you have one spine, and it must house the spinal cord, and each joint in the spine only has so much motion before it will herniate or impinge upon the spinal cord. For this reason the motion seen at the spine (such as bending over to touch your toes, or reach sideways and adjust the volume on your speakers) is actually the summed movement of the discs rotating or flexing in small 1-3 degree segments. So it stands to reason that if these discs are not working in a co-ordinated manner that the range of motion they could produce in one direction would be compromised. Some practical examples are:

– a hyper arched lower back (lordosis) often seen in women will reduce the ability of the ribs to face the abdominal cavity or the line of pull in the diaphragm often resulting in poor breathing mechanics and tension in the muscles of the neck and upper back

– head position can affect the ability of the shoulders to flex overhead or extend the hips

– an extended neck (head pulled back) can reduce your ability to touch your toes

A return to balance of regular spinal curve can improve the movement of almost every major joint. Consider that chiropractic adjustments of the spine are shown to significantly improve sprint times in the absence of any other physical training and you can start to see the importance of spinal joint mechanics on the efficiency of movement across the entire system.

That Pesky Brain Matters Too

The next few points have to do with the physical and emotional stress of a traumatic or chronic injury and the corresponding neural and biomechanics effects that are often ignored when effectively managing the rehabilitation process. I have already alluded to breathing mechanics and their effects on quality of movement, but first I want to remove any doubt you may have that something as simple as breathing can actually affect the range of usable motion. Try this simple self demonstration:

– Bend over and try to touch your toes. Can’t do it? No worries, Take a deep breath into your diaphragm until your hands actually rise away from your feet and you can feel the stomach pressing against the thighs. Now let the breath out through your mouth slowly and stretch down to reach your toes. You should be closer now. Try this 3-4 times. I bet you’re touching your toes now, and if not, you’re significantly closer.

What you’ve just done is used a biofeedback technique to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (aka the rest and digest system) to reduce residual neural tone in the spinal erectors resulting in decreased tension and increased range of motion.

When you are physically stressed from an injury, or emotionally stressed from the loss of function, this often this leads to a constant fight or flight response and sympathetic nervous system dominance; one of the first casualties of this state is proper breathing mechanics. All of a sudden muscles like the SCM, levator scapulae, and upper trapezius are being used to pull the ribcage up and increase lung volume, which is ok for a small period of stress like running from a grizzly bear or your in-laws, but not the greatest long term strategy. These muscles quickly become fatigued and end up in a state of constant tension and exhalation is severely compromised. As we already know from our little demonstration that proper exhalation is important for keeping nervous system balance and creating usable range of motion in the spinal joints, and we know from the “one spine” reference how important the range of those spinal joints are to the quality of movement in all joints; therefore, a proper rehabilitation program should include some form of breathing retraining. These techniques can actually help other modalities like dynamic stabilization and soft tissue work “hold” for longer periods of time.

The Aerobic and Cardiovascular System

Ok, so now we know that for most injuries where doing so would not be contraindicative, you can add in some torso control, spinal posture correction, and breathing exercises, and expect to see some improvement in quality of motion at the injured or painful joint, but one of the most powerful recovery methods is still being ignored. ALL recovery happens aerobically via the blood. Seriously ALL recovery. So why isn’t your doctor or therapist telling you to get on the bike, rower, or literally any other low impact cardiovascular machine for 25-30mins 4+ times a week in the 100-120bpm range (for most people)? I actually have no idea. The strength of the aerobic system is a predictor of recovery from an injury, but does that mean that once you have the injury it’s too late to start developing the system’s efficiency? Absolutely not. One of my clients was on crutches the day previously, we got him on the rower for 25 minutes (with only one foot strapped in), reduced the swelling in his injured ankle to less than half, and had him walking with close to normal gait by the end of the session. The ability of the aerobic system to reduce chronic inflammation is one of the main reasons I have my contact sport athletes complete an aerobic phase in their early offseason, but note THE LOW INTENSITY DEVELOPMENT OF THE AEROBIC SYSTEM IMPROVES ALL BIOMOTOR ABILITIES, including flexibility and mobility, which should be of concern in all physical rehabilitation cases. Find a way to improve the aerobic system, even if means waving your hands around in the air with milk jugs and you can expect a shorter time on the IR.

Find the Right Treatment

Ok I’m going to try and be quick with the next couple points. Not everybody responds to a treatment. While some are considered more effective than others, nothing works for everybody all the time. There are predictor methods, and the best practitioners will take into account the state of the brain and nervous system when choosing your treatment methods. Beware of therapists that tell you the reason you’re not improving is just that you need more of the same thing; if you’ve seen the same person and haven’t seen improvement in approximately 3-4 sessions, it’s probably time to see someone else. If you’re looking for the best practitioners in BC, feel free to send us a DM and we’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.

Putting it all Together – You Might be Injured, but you Still Have Work to do

There is almost always a way to train around an injury and still achieve some level of fitness; it often takes creativity and I’d highly recommend working with an experienced coach and a written program during this sensitive time period. Lastly, do not stop your rehabilitation process at “pain free”; you must overbuild the structure to be resistant to future situations that risk re-injury. This doesn’t mean doing a bunch of small exercises with bands for the rest of your life, this means getting strong and cementing all those new or relearned neural patterns with demanding exercise. For now I hope this has given you a few tools to help you in your quest of getting back to doing what you love, and after all, that’s what this is all really about!

As always feel free to contact us with your questions or comments – thanks for reading!

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