Recovery not your friend? Here’s why!

How we recover from injury isn't ever what we expect. Here's why!

Whether you’d class it as an injury or not, we’ve all had aches and pains at some point – some are short lived, some come and go and others linger. But why is recovery so variable? Can we speed it up and if so, how? 

It would be amazing if the body was straightforward, following a set course. In some ways it is – biology is largely predictable, taking a set amount of time to do a set amount of actions. The big thing that affects this is what we do and the conscious decisions we make. Given the chance, our bodies can recover from most things but the issue is, are we giving it a chance? Without the right factors, our recovery can wax and wane, making us frustrated and keeping us away from what we enjoy doing for even longer. Here are some of the biggest factors affecting how we recover: 

Sleep 

This is by far one of the most commonly overlooked factors. We all know we should be getting eight hours of quality sleep a night but many of us don’t know why. When we drift into deep sleep, our brain releases growth hormone helps with the rebuilding of soft tissues such as muscles. Blood flow to our muscles is also increased when we sleep, which brings oxygen and nutrients to our muscles, allowing further healing. Finally, a hormone called prolactin is also released, which helps to regulate inflammation. All of these are so important to recovery so try to sleep well if you can! (And don’t feel bad if you can’t, I’ve got some sleep tips coming up soon!). 

Nutrition 

We all know protein is a staple for body builders and athletes, but it’s also really important for those who are injured. Injured muscles, tendons and ligaments are rebuilt using protein fibres so if your diet is low in protein, there’s a good chance it will affect your recovery. I’m not saying to stuff your diet with eggs, red meat and fish, but a healthy portion of protein across the day will give your body the fuel it needs to recover (although all components of your diet are super important of course!). 

Age  

The reality is, things take a little longer as we get older and one of those things is recovery from injury. This is not to say you’ll never get better (a vast majority of people do!) but like wrinkles on our skin, wear and tear and scar tissue are normal age-related changes that may have an impact on how your body responds to injury. Be patient and get the advice and support you need to help. 

What steps you’ve taken to recover 

People often think RICE when they’re injured (rest, ice, compress, elevate). This is a starting point but misses a big part of the story. Hands on treatment from a qualified professional can really help to speed your recovery along…as long as it’s the right treatment! Soft tissue injuries in particular respond really well to graduated load, which rather throws the ‘rest’ part of RICE into question. Get yourself a qualified professional who will give you things to do outside the treatment room as this is just as important (if not more so) than hands on treatment. If your therapist isn’t giving you homework, they’re missing a big part of the story, but more on that another time! 

The injury itself 

This seems obvious but a lot of people don’t acknowledge how different injuries respond differently to treatment. For example, muscle sprains recover quicker than tendon strains as muscles are better supplied by blood vessels. Dislocations often take longer than fractures to heal as more muscles, tendons and ligaments are often affected in a dislocation. Hurting your shoulder may take longer to recover than a finger injury as it’s a bigger joint. Getting the right diagnosis can make a massive difference to how you view your recovery – have the right people on your team and you’ll soar. 

There is of course a whole mental side to recovery that we haven’t even discussed but again, that’s a conversation for another day. But hopefully this has given you some answers to why and how your body recovers in the way that it does. Best of luck! 

Stress – it just affects us mentally, right?

At some point or another, we all go through stress, be it physical or mental. We grow from it, we learn from it – it’s a necessary evil to progress in life. Many would even argue that it’s a positive thing and that pushing our boundaries is what we need (I would agree in many circumstances!). We all know how stress makes us feel but how does it affect us physically? 

In clinic, I see people every day who’s aches and pains can be put down to stress. Be it tight shoulders, headaches or back pain, we all have a place where our stress migrates to. A big part of what osteopaths do to help with pain is to identify this ‘stress area’ and show you how to strengthen and stretch it out. This helps with long term recovery and will help your body cope with whatever you through at it. Of course, this relies on reducing stress where possible too.  

During times of stress, we go through a ‘fight or flight’ response, a reaction that’s controlled by our hypothalamus, located deep in the brain. The hypothalamus communicates with the rest of our body via our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems which act like the accelerator and brake for our body. During times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and gets us ready to act (fight) or run (flight) by causing adrenaline to be released. This in turn triggers a number of other things to happen: 

How fight or flight affects us on a physical level

As you can see, stress doesn’t just affect us on a psychological level. All of these factors help to explain why conditions like type two diabetes, heart disease and digestive issues are so much more common in people who have stressful lifestyles or struggle to control their stress levels. Particularly in the early stages of these conditions, lifestyle changes can have a big impact on how the conditions progress and can in some situations reduce symptoms entirely. This of course is something to discuss with your consultant or doctor. Bear in mind medication and monitoring are still super important here! 

With stress being part of our everyday lives, it’s important that we learn to control the elements we have a say in. Here are some tips you could try to reduce your stress levels: 

  1. Mindfulness! Be it meditation, gratitude lists or other mindfulness strategies, taking your head out of the game for a moment can be really beneficial. Like everything, you have to be engaged with it for it to work – just sitting down for ten minutes won’t do a lot unless you’re able to commit to whatever it is you’re trying to do. For example, I’m a restless soul and so I find meditation quite difficult (clearing my mind doesn’t come easy!). Instead, I find gratitude really helpful – considering what I have to be grateful for. It doesn’t have to be anything major, even just having time to have a cup of tea is something to be grateful for at the moment! 
  1. Decide what is and isn’t out of your control! Traffic is out of your control but the route you take or the time you give yourself for a journey is within your control. The coronavirus outbreak is out of your control but staying at home is within your control. The amount of work your boss expects you to do is out of your control but how you plan your day is within your control. Do you see what I mean? Change what you can and work around what you can’t! 
  1. Be in tune with your body! Know your warning signs – be it a twinge of back pain, a nauseous feeling before a headache or otherwise. Recognise the signs of getting stressed and try to mitigate them (or better still the stress itself!) before it becomes an issue! 
  1. Ask for help! Don’t be afraid to delegate or ask for assistance. We’re all only human and there are only so many hours in a day. Make a plan, divide it into tasks and delegate or put things off if things get too much 
  1. Contact your GP! There’s no shame in asking for help and I’m sure your GP would prefer to help at the start of an issue than when things have become overwhelming and there are a number of factors to sort out. It’s the same with osteopaths – seeing us when you’ve got a niggle is better than waiting until it’s a full blown injury. Better to be sorted sooner rather than later! 

Really what this comes down to is good awareness of your own body, mind and stress. I’m by no means perfect at this but it comes with time. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re not quite there yet…that’ll just create more stress! One step at a time! 

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