Feeling the Burn? Or Is That an Injury? How to Tell the Difference

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There is no shortage of mantras that encourage us to push through pain to achieve our goals. However, motivational phrases like “no pain, no gain!” can be dangerous advice if you're on the verge of injury. To keep a good workout from turning into a trip to the hospital, listen to the signs your body gives you. Here's how to determine the difference between the normal torture of exercise and a serious underlying injury. 

Good Pain

If you’ve ever struggled to get out of bed a day or two after a tough workout, you know the satisfying, albeit brutal, feeling of muscle soreness. This is an example of good pain. It's the result of a well-targeted and well-executed workout (nice job, man). While it can be an annoyance, it’s nothing to worry about and will typically improve with movement and will eventually go away on its own. Don't use it as an excuse to skip your next workout.

Bad Pain

Unlike the fairly recognizable "good pain," bad pain can come in many forms, none of which are good. Here's how to spot the big ones.

Sharp Pain: You need to look out for pain that is sharp and felt in one specific spot or area. It's likely a warning sign of a more serious injury, such as a muscle tear. If you feel a sudden, sharp pain, it’s time to stop.

Sudden Tightening: If you feel a sudden tightening during an exercise you've probably pulled a muscle. Take a break from that particular movement or activity until the muscle recovers. It might be something more serious if it bothers you even when you move gently, or if the pain lasts longer than two weeks. If that’s the case, make an appointment with your doctor.

Increasing Pain Levels: Any kind of pain that gets progressively worse and more intense as you work out is bad news. You're either about to get an overuse injury or you already have one. If you experience these symptoms, take a break from that activity until you can have a doctor check it out.

Achy Joints: Achiness in your joints during or after exercise can be a warning that your muscles aren’t absorbing force properly. When your muscles don’t absorb force properly, the soft tissue around your joints (tendons, retinaculum, and musculotendinous junction, for example) take on too much force and then apply this force to their bony connection points. If you're feeling more joint pain than muscle soreness the day after a workout, you need to have someone assess your form.