Most people have or will experience some type of soft tissue injury – an insult to the muscle, tendon or ligament structures of the body. The ubiquitous ankle sprain seems, on the surface, less severe than a broken ankle, but in many ways, the sprain can end up being a much larger problem. A broken/fractured bone takes about 6-8 weeks to heal and is generally treated by restricting movement by way of a cast or crutches, which typically produces a very successful result. With an ankle sprain, after the initial pain and swelling have subsided, you might feel falsely confident: “Seems fine! I think I’ll go for a run!” But, as the ankle sprain (or other soft tissue injury) heals superficially, we don’t always consider the underlying factors that contribute to the ankle’s stability. Not only have the ligaments been strained but the surrounding muscles and receptors in the joint have been affected as well. A bone healing is fairly straightforward; give it a certain time frame to mend and then start strengthening exercises. If you come back too quickly and fiercely after a soft tissue injury, you can very easily re-strain the area and set yourself back both time-wise and psychologically. While you can sprain or strain soft tissue from a fall, jarring movement, or other mishap, many injuries occur from muscular imbalances around a joint and/or overuse. To create the healthiest outcome in your recovery, follow the H-E-A-L method for success.
H = Help the healing process.
Know that a soft tissue injury, depending on the degree of strain, will take approximately 1-8 weeks to heal. First, get an idea of the severity of your injury. A few years ago, I strained my calf to the point where I could not put full weight down on that side without pain for one week. If you are having symptoms for one week, you can assume it will be at least another two weeks before you can place some challenge on that area. Begin the healing with the R-I- C-E method: rest, ice, compression and elevation. After one or more days of this, you can begin to add heat BEFORE moving and ice AFTER moving. With my calf strain, I was very good about this, icing at night and wrapping my calf in ACE wrap. After three weeks, I tried some jumping jacks and was feeling great until a sharp, knifelike pain stabbed into my calf. Bam! Back to square one. The bottom line: I had helped with healing but had not looked at the second step.
E= Educate yourself about your body’s imbalances.
This step is invaluable in knowing the vehicle (our body) that carries us through the days of our lives. If our car has a low left front tire, it will certainly cause uneven wear on the other tires and affect gas efficiency. My calf injury occurred because I had jumped into a new routine that included a lot of plyometrics. While they were challenging and fun, my calf muscles were not used to the consistent push-off, so one of them snapped. After I allowed the strained calf to heal, I begin to slowly strengthen the muscle in its’ full range of movement and started implementing plyometrics in my regular fitness routine, especially in my yoga practices.
With other kinds of strains, like a low back injury, be sure to consider all of the factors that are potentially contributing to the integrity of that area to really determine what could be the weak link. With a back injury, there are so many possible factors – posture, core muscles in all sides of the torso, flexibility of the hamstrings and other muscles around the pelvis – that can be contributing to the pain. Consulting a physical therapist or doctor to educate you further may be necessary in this step of healing and is always recommended if you are in pain.
A= Acknowledge activities or elements in your life that may be detrimental and possibly causing the soft tissue injury or not allowing it to heal.
Not all exercise programs, fitness/yoga classes, and/or sports are smart for all people. For example, I am in my 40’s, with a strong vinyasa yoga practice and many years of long-distance running under my belt. I have acknowledged that long-distance running creates imbalances in my hips and, frankly, no longer feels good. As much as I loved the feeling of freedom and the rush of endorphins that running brought to my world, the resulting pain and discomfort just wasn’t worth it. A friend of mine went to a yoga studio where the instructor was having the class do repetitive backbends without fully warming up the body. My friend chose not to practice them, knowing that she could possibly injure her back. It’s A-OKAY to acknowledge what works for you and keeps your body healthy. Don’t forget to investigate the habitual patterns of movement and inactivity in your life- how you sit, carry your purse/backpack, how you pick things up from the floor, whether you ever stretch, how your grip the phone, etc. Our daily movements can lead to imbalances that can cause soft tissue injuries and also prevent them from healing. Get curious about what you can modify, improve or change to be the most balanced in the body.
L= Listen to your body and give it what it needs.
Balance the imbalances-strengthen what needs to be stronger, open up what needs to be more flexible. (And never use inflexibility as a reason to NOT try yoga!) We all need more core strength- do core work every chance you get! The core is the muscular wrapping that supports the skeleton and gives stability for the limbs’ mobility. Strength in the core improves your posture so that when you move in various directions using different muscle groups, you feel more supported. Plank, forearm plank, and abdominal exercises where you have to pull the lower belly in toward the back body, are examples of core work to add into your daily fitness practice. Listen to your body and know that more core work will always be beneficial for soft tissue health and healing.
And maybe add a……
Treat yourself with kindness and deep breaths! Healing takes patience and getting stronger and more balanced takes time. Use your inner wisdom to H.E.A.L. soft tissue injuries and prevent a reoccurrence.