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Commence an exercise program gradually to avoid overuse injuries

Allen Passerallo, ATC, Athletic Trainer, Cleveland Clinic Sports Health

With the weather warming, the urge to exercise outdoors becomes more enticing. Embracing this motivation to get more physical activity is encouraged; however, one must be careful of potential injuries that can occur when beginning or returning to an exercise program. One of the most common — and easiest to avoid — injuries is the overuse injury. This occurs when forces applied to a structure, such as a muscle tendon, increase faster than the tendon is able to adapt to the stress. These forces lead to a breakdown of the tissue, resulting in symptoms of pain and potential swelling. Injuries such as tendonitis and bursitis exhibit these symptoms and occur when a tendon or bursa in a body part becomes inflamed.

Common areas for overuse injuries in the lower body are the Achilles tendon, shin, patellar tendon (front of the knee) and the hip. In the upper body, the rotator cuff or shoulder and the elbow (sometimes called tennis elbow) are the most affected.

If pain and/or swelling do occur, it is best to suspend or modify the activity in order to rest the area. Along with rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories may be used with ice and stretches to decrease pain and swelling. If symptoms persist, it is advisable to seek out a medical opinion with a sports medicine specialist or family physician. Stretches can be used in recovering from overuse injuries and, if done correctly, can also be used to prevent injuries. Stretching prepares the muscle to accommodate the forces that will be placed on the tendon or body part. Stretches should be performed after a sub-maximal warm-up such as a brisk walk or jog. Stretch both the upper and lower body by holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, without bouncing, and repeat each stretch two to three times. Stretching also can be performed after the activity.

In addition to stretching, gradual progression into an exercise program is advised. Overuse injuries are typically the result of doing too much too soon. Start slow and increase the intensity of the exercise by 10 percent each week, assuming you are performing the exercise at least two to three times per week. By following these guidelines, you can decrease you chance of experiencing an overuse injury and keep yourself active in the great outdoors.