Pain isn’t just your body’s way of screwing up your day. It’s a warning signal that something else is going on—and you need to do something to prevent further damage.
What’s especially tough about pain—whether it comes from something chronic like recurring headaches or something acute like a twist of the ankle—is that there’s such a wide spectrum about what it could mean and what to do.
Researchers estimate that pain costs (including treatments and lost wages) in the United States is between $560 billion to $635 billion, nearly 30 percent higher than the combined cost of cancer and diabetes.
“Pain can sap your energy and hurt, so it’s important to listen to your body’s cues and heal properly,” says Samip Morker, M.D., Interventional Pain Management Specialist in Chicago.
“I do find that most of the modes of healing are intuitive, you typically use the treatment that you think would make you feel better, but there are some rules to know.”
If you're looking for the fastest way to feel better, it's important to use the right approach to speed recovery. Here's a look at the different ways you can treat sore muscles and how to make it work for your body.
When to… ICE
Use an ice pack or bag of frozen peas when you have an acute injury, like a sprained ankle or strained muscle (with symptoms of pain, tenderness, redness, swelling, and inflammation).
Cold therapy is better than heat because ice has analgesic properties, numbing any pain and causing blood vessels to constrict. Less blood flow means less inflammation. “When it comes to healing an injury, it’s all about engaging blood flow,” Morker says.
If you're looking to take the edge off of pain, icing is most effective right after an injury occurs. In fact, waiting 48 hours to ice significantly diminishes the effect. Ideally, ice while the injured body part is elevated, for 15 to 20 minutes every four to six hours, with a cloth between the ice and skin and be sure to move the ice frequently, so it doesn’t sit in one spot, Morker says.
That said, some research suggests that icing post-injury, while it might make you feel better actually slows your recovery. So, beware of the trade-off of pain for time it takes to bounce back to 100 percent.
When to… HEAT
Heat should be your go-to for chronic injuries or those that have no inflammation, such as joint stiffness or muscle spasms. Twenty minutes (or less) of applying a heating pad can increase blood flow to an injury, which promotes healing while relaxing muscles and relieving pain.
“Heat has a natural therapeutic effect,” Morker says. “It causes the blood vessels to dilate, which increases the blood flow to the area. Just be sure not to nod off with the heating pad on.”
If you’re feeling sore or stiff, heat is an ideal therapy and can be used before and/or after a workout. The warmth can help relax tight muscles, so you can stretch with ease pre-workout, which can ultimately prevent injury, Morker says.
If you find yourself feeling sore post-workout, there may not be enough blood flow to eliminate the building up of lactic acid. Heating your muscles up increases blood flow and decreases the sore feeling.
When to… MASSAGE
A massage can help when your pain is associated with mobility restrictions, like not being able to turn your head as far as usual. Massage can relieve muscle tension that you can’t seem to fix on your own (and research shows that it also decreases anxiety, stress, and pain).
Besides feeling really good, massage therapy—a combination of pressure and movement—lengthen muscles that are too tight, releases nerve entrapments, and improves blood flow, which all speed up recovery. And if you are referred by a health-care practitioner, it could be covered by your insurance, Morker says.
When to… HYDRATE
Water can help with some forms of pain, like headaches (since dehydration is a cause), but it may also help prevent some other pains because dehydration can lead to muscle spasm and ruptured discs.
“I see it a lot,” Morker says. “Patients who work out at the end of the day and max out on forward squats, leading to a herniated disc in their lower back. Hydration would be a way to prevent this injury.”
In between each of the vertebra are 23 discs, and each one has two parts, a tough outer ring of ligament fibers, and a jelly-filled inner core that is made up of collagen and about 60 percent water.
If there’s not enough water, the inner core of the disc shrinks, and the outer shell then take on the burden, causing an imbalance and injury. To replenish discs and keep them working optimally, drink water.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends making sure you’re properly hydrated before you plan to exercise—so that you don’t start your workout dehydrated—and that you’re rehydrating after you’re done. For a quick check on how much water to consume daily, take your weight, and divide that by 2.2.
When to… MEDICATE
When it comes to treating inflammation and pain, NSAIDs (which include ibuprofen and naproxen) are effective, Morker says.
In a 2017 JAMA study, the combination of acetaminophen and ibuprofen was as effective as any opioid combination. Before combining medications or taking new ones, it’s always a good idea to consult your physician.
When to… SEE A DOCTOR
To prevent further damage, don’t push through pain. Many athletes push themselves past their physical limits and it oftentimes leads to more pain and worsening of the injury, Morker says.
“Rest can be a challenge, but is a huge factor in healing properly, one might say the most important,” Morker says. “Don’t fight through the pain, instead listen to your body; you’ll be back on your feet way sooner if you take the time to rest.”
And if an injury, whether acute or chronic, does not seem to be improving after a span of 48 to 72 hours, or is getting worse, be sure to see a doctor immediately.
Of course, when in doubt, or, if it’s a serious injury or pain, don’t wait it out, hoping that a frozen bag of blueberries will do the trick.