While catching up recently on Doug Kelsey's great blog, I noticed he said this in November about pain, while counseling a hurt runner on how to return to his sport:
You have to go hunting for the point where symptoms show up, adjust, re-train, and go again. This is where people make mistakes. They fail to edge the training. They fear the pain. Pain is the guide; not the problem.So if you're always in pain, is the answer to just exercise anyway and accept that there will be a certain amount of pain?
This is a very tricky question. Anyone who's been reading my blog/comments elsewhere (such as on KneeGuru) knows that two keys to saving my knees were: (1) Going slowly and being patient (2) Modifying activity when pain and even mild swelling occurred.
Here's what I did, and what worked for me, with regard to pain and exercise and daily activities:
First, I listened very carefully to my knees. Bad knees throw off many different kinds of unhappy signals. I worked hard to figure out which ones meant impending problems and which were just the background grumblings I had to live with. I reacted quickly to the pain/discomfort signals that I thought spelled trouble.
If I awoke and my knees felt subpar, for example, I might cut back my step count that day from 6,000 to say 3,000 or 4,000 (I'd also try hard to figure out what caused the backsliding in the first place, so as to change my future behavior.) But my adjustment was usually only for a few days at most. It doesn't do much good to be on an exercise "program" that consists of lurching about; consistency is good.
I learned, too, that pain signals can arrive a full TWO DAYS AFTER the offending activity (hyaline articular cartilage has no nerves -- that's a BIG issue when you're trying to heal). Once I had knee pain two days after moving a heavy fan. Puzzled, I studied my knee journal to see what else could have caused the pain. Nothing -- I'm 99 percent sure it was moving that fan.
My recovery was a matter of learning how to recognize pain signals (delayed and otherwise), backing off, strengthening my joints, then pushing the envelope again.
That's right: I was always pushing the envelope. I never thought to myself, "Okay, I'll just get to the point where my bad knees can walk two miles without too much of a problem, then that'll be good enough -- I'll just accept I have bad knees that can walk only two miles." I wanted to heal and make my knees strong again, so I could resume the intense cycling I loved. I had big goals.
This is what Kelsey is talking about with that nice phrase, "edge the training." You have to push yourself beyond what's safe and comfortable.
The preceding reflects my personal experience. I realize I had a certain luxury though: my knees weren't absolutely shot by the time I intervened and managed to rescue them. Other people aren't so lucky. They're at the point -- because of failed physical therapy, or too much progressive damage over the years, or the severity of their initial injury -- where they simply can't get free of the pain.
So that brings us back to the original question: how do you exercise if everything always hurts?
Here are some of my thoughts for those with fairly constant pain. Discuss these with a medical professional to see if he/she thinks they make sense for you, in your situation:
* Can you do short bursts of activity? There was a period of my recovery, when I was half-convinced my doctors were right and I'd never get better, when I just did "walkarounds." Every ten minutes, I'd walk for a minute. It was a strange and boring regimen (bring a book!). For example, I'd go to a small park and walk around for a minute, then sit on a bench for nine minutes, then slowly walk for a minute, then sit back down etc.
Are there any motion-based activities your knees like? Moving in a swimming pool? Cycling backwards on a stationary bike (it requires less force and takes pressure off the joints)? At one point -- when I thought maybe I needed to go back to square one with my poor joints -- I even contemplated buying a continuous passive motion machine, secondhand, and just using that to give my joints frequent motion without too much strain.
* If nothing works for you -- you're still always in pain! -- you could experiment. I became a world-class experimenter. In fact, this helped stave off the boredom from what is, in the best of circumstances, a very, very slow recovery. Dedicate a week to a program of movement -- keep it at the same level all week (obviously if your knees start sliding downhill, adjust).
You do need to be fairly scientific-minded when you experiment, I found (buy a pedometer to track your steps!). If you don't keep as many day-to-day variables as constant as you can, then it'll be hard to tell whether your program of walking 4,000 steps a day is causing the problems, or whether it was that ill-advised trip to the racetrack when you had to stand for two hours in the same spot. In my book, I talk about how I became a guinea pig of my own making.
Also, I discovered that, with recovery from a slow-healing injury, it's best to focus on trend lines, not individual data points. In other words, say you start exercising Monday. On Tuesday, you say, "Eh, I feel about the same." Wednesday, you say, "I feel just a little worse." Thursday, you say, "It's been three days, overall I feel a little bit worse, I'm going to try something different."
The problem is, you may not have given your new regimen enough time. Try it for a couple of weeks. If, at that point, you say, "I'm definitely worse and going downhill," then maybe you are going in the wrong direction. But if you say, "I feel about the same," then you're probably winning. Why? Because you feel about the same but you're moving a lot more. That extra movement is laying the base for even more movement, and that's the path to healing bad knees.
* If experimenting isn't your cup of tea, or you don't feel you're getting anywhere, I'd look for a good physical therapist who is equipped to measure, scientifically, the strength of your bad joints and help you fashion a program to improve them. This involves more than someone examining your knees and saying, "Okay, do 10 of these and 20 of these" and so on. You need a physical therapist who can tailor a specific, joint-friendly exercise program for you.
Okay, that's a long-enough entry. I'm sure I'll return to this subject later. Now back to the book -- I'm coming down the home stretch and think we'll be ready to launch next weekend. Exciting moment! More information to come later and I will reveal why it's coming out only as an e-book. Stay tuned! :)