Exercise Aches You Should Never Ignore

What to do for 6 common complaints of exercisers—and how to stay injury-free.

by Ginny Graves
Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki

Whether you’re an exercise newbie or a seasoned vet, odds are you’ve rolled out of bed one day and felt something: a twinge in the knee, a stab of pain in your heel, an ache in your shoulder. Uh-oh, you think. What now? Welcome to a not-very-exclusive club: the fleet of midlife fitness enthusiasts who are limping into doctors’ offices at an alarming rate.

“Sports injuries are common among women in their forties and fifties because as estrogen levels in the body drop, we lose muscle mass and flexibility, making us more prone to hurting ourselves,” says Catherine M. Robertson, MD, assistant clinical professor in sports medicine and orthopedic surgery at the University of California in San Diego. Indeed, Ohio State University researchers recently found that weight-training-related injuries are on the rise, and the largest increases are among midlife women.

Most twinges, of course, aren’t serious. But you shouldn’t ignore them, because pain is the body’s way of sending you a message. We asked some leading sports-injury experts to decipher your body’s code.

Pain Point: Front of Knee

Common causes: Activities that put increased pressure on the knees, including running, skiing, cycling and using the stair stepper at the gym

Probable problem: If the pain worsens with activity or when you descend stairs, you’re most likely suffering from patellofemoral pain, or runner’s knee, a condition that affects twice as many women as men, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Why are we so lucky? “Women’s hips are wider than men’s, so repetitive movements tend to pull our kneecaps out of alignment, causing pain and inflammation,” says Robertson. We are also more susceptible to rolling our feet inward when we walk or run and to having weak quadriceps and hip muscles, all of which strain the knees.

Action plan: Ratchet back your exercise routine until pain subsides, taking a few days off if necessary. During that time avoid stairs and high-impact activities that cause you to bend your knees beyond about 45 degrees. Strengthen your hips by doing side-lying leg lifts or use the gym’s abduction machine (the one that has you sit in the seat and press out with your legs). If the pain persists for more than two weeks, or if there’s swelling, or if the discomfort is altering your gait, see an orthopedist. The good news: Up to 90 percent of people with patellofemoral pain recover fully, usually within six weeks.

Pain Point: Foot or Shinbone

Common causes:?Running, walking and playing tennis and basketball

Probable problem:?“Stress fractures, or tiny cracks in the bone, are common in women who are starting an activity and do too much too soon or who are increasing their distance because they’re training for an event,” says Lisa Callahan, MD, codirector of the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. “The fractures occur most often in the big bone in the front of the shin, but I see a lot in the feet of women, sometimes just from walking.” When lower leg muscles, which typically absorb the impact, start to fatigue, the force is transferred to the bones. If they’ve become brittle, which begins to happen as we age, they crack under the pressure.

Action plan:?If the pain doesn’t go away within a week or if it worsens after a day or two, see a doctor, who will take an X-ray to diagnose the problem and can assess whether you suffer from an underlying issue with your bone health, like osteoporosis. If you have a stress fracture, you should take off about four to eight weeks from the activity that caused the break, but you can usually swim, cycle and strength-train during that time to stay in shape. Building your calf muscles in particular can protect your shinbones from injury, according to research at the University of Minnesota. Do 10 toe raises every day. Get extra protection at the drugstore: Women who take 2,000 milligrams of calcium plus 800 IU of vitamin D every day have a 20 percent lower incidence of stress fractures than those who don’t, according to Creighton University researchers.

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