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Recovery From Injury

By Paul Schienberg, PhD

Getting hurt while participating in your favorite sport is one of the most difficult things for individuals to deal with physically. However, all too often it is difficult for people to deal with the emotional aspects as well. Research has shown that 1 out of every 6 athletes has significant levels of emotional distress in the first two months following an injury. Indeed, injuries can affect our sense of well being as well as our self-definition. This article provides practical information on how to ease the emotional and physical pain that is associated with athletic injury.

First and foremost, it is important to understand the injury itself as well as the rehabilitation process. While most sports medicine specialists will provide you with this information, it is important that you ask them questions to make sure everything is clear in your mind. Questions relating to the length of time involved in rehab, the medical procedures that will be used and the goals of rehabilitation are things that you want to be very clear about. There may be plateaus or setbacks during treatment, having this information at hand eliminates some of the stress that could result. Try to establish clear lines of communication with you sport medicine specialists. Remember, they are experts in their field and what makes sense to them, may not make sense to you so don’t be afraid to ask for clarification.

Be sure to listen to the advice of your sports medicine specialist, specially when it comes to the homework they often assign. If you overdo it, you run the risk of worsening the injury. Many people still feel a desire to exercise when they are injured, specially if it was part of their daily routine. Try an activity that targets parts of your body that are not injured. For example, if you have hurt your knee, try using weights to build your upper body strength. This will help to keep your body and mind focused which will facilitate your return to your sport.

Set up goals that you can reach. You should try to develop goal ladders where you lay out the steps in your recovery. Just like the real rungs of a ladder, these goals should be steps that you can make easily. If you make the steps too far apart you run the risk of falling off the ladder. Also, you should plan on occasionally having to stop at a step to “steady the ladder.” As we all know, things seldom go according to plan. Be realistic, there are no quick fixes!

Try to keep a positive attitude. It is easy to think of the injury and the minor set backs that will come during the recovery process as a catastrophe, but this is not necessarily true. Often this can be attributed to irrational thoughts that you have about the event. Thought like “I’m never going to recover from this” or “I don’t want to get hurt again” are common. It is important that you are aware of these thoughts and actively combat them. “I can recover, I’ve worked this hard before while training!” is one useful thought. Positive self-statements have been shown to be related to the probability that an individual will make a full recovery. Other useful positive self statements include “I am a warrior,” “I am powerful,” and “I feel great.” Avoid using negating self statements such as “I feel no pain.” If you do this your mind will focuses on the word “pain” and forgets about the word “no.”

Another important factor in coping with your injury is to use the social support that you already had around you. Make sure that you maintain contact with the teams or people that you played your sport with. If it was a team perhaps organize to do your rehab sessions with them when they are training. This way you will still feel part of the team even if you can’t be out there pushing the limits. If this isn’t possible make sure that you keep in touch – socially or by just dropping in at games or practices. Although watching others play can be difficult, the social support that you will get from team mates is important.

When you are finally well enough to return to your sport, try to stay in the present. Many people often feel a fear that they will re-injure themselves the minute that they step on the field. Focusing on the task at hand (which you can control) rather than what has happened in the past (which you can’t) can be of help in these situations. Again, be reasonable about your expectations when you return to the playing field. Most athletic re-injuries happen when an individual tries too hard to be at top form too soon.

While an athletic injury can significantly effect our physical and emotional health at the time, this does not mean that it is a permanent condition. Your body needs time to heal physically. As this happens, you will find that the emotional distress that you initially had will also decrease until you are back to normal.