Sooner or later, almost everyone gets sidelined by an injury. From twisted ankles, tendinitis and pulled muscles to the more serious torn rotator cuffs, these injuries used to mean weeks of inactivity, which can lead to unwanted pounds that only complicate recovery.
These days, "we approach injury [for most people] much like we would with any athlete," said physical therapist Thomas Papke, a spokesman for the American Physical Therapy Association. The Oakland Raiders "wouldn't sit out eight weeks while they recovered. . . ." said Papke, who consulted with the team when it was based in Los Angeles. "It's appropriate to work through the healing cycle."
But that doesn't mean shooting up with cortisone or playing through pain. "Pain is a wonderful messenger to tell you when to stop," said Papke, who runs Capital Metro Physical Therapy in Northern Virginia and the District.
What "working through the cycle" does mean is staying active in ways that permit your injury to heal. "When most people have an injury, it usually involves just one body part," noted registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "There's no reason you can't exercise the rest of the body, although it will depend on the severity of the injury."
It's also important to eat well but not too much, since injuries often mean limiting activity, which means you're burning fewer calories. Some people use an injury as a license to overeat. Others, worried about weight gain, cut back so much on calories, Bonci said, that they risk hampering healing. "You want to be selective about what you eat," she said.
Here's what Papke and Bonci, who is recovering from an arm injury herself, recommend. It's prudent to follow any of these tips in consultation with your physician or health professional:
RICE it. Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) is still the standard remedy for a new injury, when inflammation is worst. After that, use heat. Seek prompt medical attention, especially for knee and other joint injuries. A 2003 study of people who had suffered anterior cruciate ligament tears in their knees found that secondary damage to the meniscus and cartilage in the knee was far more likely to occur without medical treatment. "Most of the problems that we deal with in our practice didn't get help early on," Papke said. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons advises to see your doctor if you have severe pain, can't move the injured part of your body or your symptoms persist.
Keep Moving. The most painful injury phase "lasts about a week to 10 days," Papke said. That's followed by stiffness in the damaged area. Before that sets in, it's important to start moving as much as possible. "So if you have a shoulder injury, rest that body part, but keep walking or biking or do breathing exercises or stretch other parts of the body," he said. If you have a sprained ankle or twisted knee, there's no reason you can't continue to work out your upper body. Water exercises can be an option for those with weight-bearing or back injuries.
How long does recovery take? Expect about four to six weeks for muscles to fully heal, Papke said, noting that "tendons take up to 10 weeks to heal, ligaments [often implicated in sprains] take up to 12 weeks and bone about eight weeks." During this time, ease into gentle stretches to help reduce stiffness, Papke said.
Let Pain Be Your Guide. If any activity hurts, stop immediately. If it doesn't, keep moving. Small increments of activity -- as little as five minutes -- are fine.
Strive to Maintain Your Weight. This isn't the time to try to continue to shed pounds, according to Bonci. It's nearly impossible to lose weight without also losing muscle, unless you're doing regular weight training. Losing muscle is the opposite of what you want to do to repair injury and keep your metabolism high.
Add Protein. It helps optimize tissue and muscle repair, but there's no need for protein supplements. Simply consume about 10 extra grams of lean protein per day. That's equal to a cup of low-fat yogurt; 10 ounces of skim milk; an ounce of lean meat, poultry or fish; two-thirds of a cup of beans; 1.5 ounces of low-fat cheese or a couple of sticks of string cheese. To avoid weight gain, you'll need to balance this with calorie reduction from less nutritious fare, such as sugary soft drinks, fried food, candy, cookies and the like.
Boost Vitamin C and Zinc. Like protein, they both help repair tissue. Foods rich in C, aside from citrus fruit, include broccoli, sweet peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries. Foods rich in zinc include oysters, crab, dark-meat poultry, yogurt, milk, almonds, peanuts, cashews, baked beans and chickpeas.
Try Turmeric. This yellow herb is best known as a common ingredient of curry powder, but there's growing evidence to suggest that it has some of the same anti-inflammatory properties as Vioxx (no longer on the market) and Celebrex, without the side effects. Less inflammation usually means less pain. Bonci advises her patients to sprinkle a little turmeric onto salads, soups, vegetables, meat or poultry.
Reach for High-Volume, Filling, Tasty -- and Healthy -- Comfort Foods. Mix guacamole with salsa for a tasty vegetable dip. To soothe nervous energy, Bonci recommends dipping into it with pickles, carrots and celery and other crunchy vegetables "that keep the mouth busy without engaging the hips."
Salads, soups and low-fat smoothies with plenty of ice are satisfying without being high in calories. Whipped or mashed potatoes (or sweet potatoes), without cream or butter, are a good comfort food. Eat whole-grain bread, pasta or rice; add plenty of veggies to the rice to dilute calories. Use fruit-flavored seltzer, ice and frozen fruit to make a slushy.
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