South County Hospital

Athletes beware: Don’t play through the pain

 
      Charlotte Moriarty, MD, PhD

Contrary to its name, tennis elbow doesn’t just affect tennis players. According to Charlotte Moriarty, MD, PhD, who specializes in sports medicine at OrthoRI - South County, it is one of many common overuse injuries people can easily avoid.

“I see it in golfers, chefs and factory workers,” Dr. Moriarty said. “Repetitive motion can cause overuse injuries like tennis elbow, Little League elbow and shin splints.”

As the weather gets warmer and the days get longer, people come out of their winter hibernation and dive right into an active lifestyle. While activity is good, people need to be mindful of their movements, the type of gear they use and how well their equipment fits.

“One key to staying active is to not overdo vigorous activity after months of inactivity,” she said.

Overuse injuries aren’t limited to adults, Dr. Moriarty said. Little Leaguers and student athletes also need to listen to their bodies to avoid putting unhealthy stresses on their still developing bones, muscles and tendons.

“They shouldn’t practice more than five days a week,” Dr. Moriarty said of developing athletes.

At least one day should be for rest and the other should be reserved for play.

“Run around, climb a tree. Just be a kid,” she said.

While athletes are driven to become stronger, faster and better at their sport, improper body mechanics and repetitive exercises can lead to injury. As a result, an athlete can be sidelined for an indefinite period of time.

“Fifty-percent, if not more, of the injuries I treat are exercise injuries,” she said. “In general, overuse injuries start out as pain during the activity. Pain is a warning signal trying to tell your body something’s wrong.”

If left unaddressed, she said, the pain is likely to persist until its cause worsens to the point that you have to stop the activity.

“You need to pay attention to your body. The hardest thing to do is tell a runner she can’t run.”

If you do experience pain, the first thing to do is modify the activity, Dr. Moriarty said.

“Generally, it’s ok to stay active as long as you adjust your actions so that you don’t continue to stress the injured area.”

Dr. Moriarty also recommends applying heat or ice to the affected area – whichever eases the pain best. She also advises that you let someone else know you’re experiencing pain.

“Seek advice early on. Explain the pain to a coach, parent, trainer – anybody – for an early evaluation. If it’s affecting your mechanics in your sport you should see someone,” she said. “Don’t push through the pain.”

An often overlooked component to exercise is sleep, especially in the warmer months when people tend to go to bed later. Exercise is good, she said, but rest is just as important.

During certain exercise, muscle tissue tears, and gets stronger as it heals.

“We actually get stronger when we’re resting,” Dr. Moriarty said. “When you sacrifice sleep, you’re not really getting the rest you need.”

Many of the patients she treats fully recover after some physical therapy. Others require more invasive treatments. The best medicine when it comes to sports and activities is to prevent injury, she said, by alternating routines, using proper gear and getting plenty of rest.

If pain is affecting your athletic performance, contact Dr. Charlotte Moriarty who can assess your condition and offer advice to get you back in the game. She can be reached at either of her offices, South County Health Medical & Wellness Center in Westerly, 268 Post Road; and OrthoRI-South County, One High Street, Wakefield, RI. Phone: 401-789-1422 (both locations).