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Don’t Let a Neck Injury Sideline You

With the excitement of the Olympics upon us, many of you, including myself, are inspired to ramp up our exercise game. But, whether you are gold-medal winning athlete or a weekend workout warrior it is important to start out slowly to avoid injury. I learned this lesson firsthand when I embarked on an ambitious athletic adventure to stretch my limits and go from running 5K’s to cross the finish line of my first triathlon and a half-marathon within weeks of each other.
The good news, I accomplished the physical challenge. The bad news: I strained my neck and shoulder (my head got in the way of a swimmer’s kicking leg). Doctors also said I had ignored some important safety measures that would have avoided injury, like warming up properly and building up the stamina slowly, instead of diving in too fast, too soon to strenuous exercise.
Turns out I had herniated a neck disc. For months after, I felt numbness in my entire right arm and hand, and experienced excruciating neck and shoulder pain. The diagnosis was a herniated cervical disc one physician and others told me it would require surgery to repair. Evidently, I am not alone. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “overexertion”— which includes too much and/or too strenuous exercise—was the second most common cause of injuries between 2004 and 2007, after falls.
Determined to recover, (and avoid the scary surgery scenarios fellow sports enthusiasts were peppering me with), I turned to sports medicine experts and physical therapists to help me recover from the exercise injury. After three-times-a-week for two months sessions of physical therapy, and a couple of months of follow-up at a chiropractor, I did bounce back. I have learned some painful lessons the hard way about preventing sports injury and staying in the game when pain strikes. Here, I offer some tips from the frontlines, which I carefully digested from the trainers at Athletico Physical Therapy.
Don’t Overdo It.
This falls into the category of don’t do what I did, which was biting off way more than I could chew way too fast. When you’re launching a new exercise program or setting a goal for running, swimming or cycling, resist the urge to go all out too soon. It’s great to get excited and have ambitious goals, but take it from me, if you take on too much, too soon you can hurt yourself. Pushing too hard or simply doing too much of one type of physical activity can strain your body and lead to an overuse injury. If you’re not sure what “too much, too soon” is, hire a personal trainer or get advice from trainers at your health club or YMCA to learn what’s safe.
Seek Prompt Medical Attention.
If you injure yourself exercising, don’t ignore the pain and see your doctor promptly. Pain is the body’s signal something is wrong.
Ice It.
While Kobe Bryant and other elite athletes are jumping into tubs filled with ice water, you don’t have to go to that extreme. You can tap into the benefits of reducing muscle soreness, injury prevention and faster recovery, by icing specific muscles – in my case my shoulder, after a workout. I headed for the freezer, wrapped ice in a towel and iced my shoulder promptly after physical therapy sessions. Icing cools down the muscles, ligaments and tissues and reduces inflammation, which is critical for avoiding injuries.
Keep Moving.
I didn’t continue to compete in triathlons and took time off from spin classes, but I found more moderate movement – walking and moving was medicine for my body. Missing the adrenaline high I got from training six days I week, I substituted running, spinning and swimming with three-mile walks through the forest preserve path near my house. It was refreshing and left me feeling mentally better. I also learned to take breaks every half hour or so and to get up from my computer and take a short walk around the office or stretch instead of sitting still all day at my computer.
Remember Pain Doesn’t Last Forever.
If you seek prompt medical attention and get the proper treatment, this too will pass if you don’t have a serious injury. I’ve returned to regular running and taking spin classes, but instead of competing in back-to-back triathlons and half-marathons, I’m sticking with 5Ks and recreational bike rides.

Mary Beth Sammons

Mary Beth Sammons @marybethsammons As an award-winning journalist and dynamic content producer, writes about health, wellness and aging, She has guided the editorial and social media teams for several caregiving, health and wellness Web sites including: CarePages.com, AOL Health and ParentDish, American Airlines site for female travelers, CircleofMoms.com, PainResource.com and Caregiversforhome.com. She has written for Family Circle, Psychology Today, More, The Chicago Tribune, among others and has written 10 books, including: Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude (Viva Editions) and A Grateful Life to be published in Fall, 2014.