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5 ways to bounce back better from a sports injury

Getting hurt is a risk of the physical activity we do to stay in shape, but research shows that the way you approach your injury can help you heal.
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Getting hurt is a risk of the physical activity we do to stay in shape, but research shows that the way you approach your injury can help you heal.

Nothing jolts an active body like a sudden hamstring sprain, shooting back pain or knees that just decide to buckle during your daily routine. If you exercise regularly, slowing down for a while to let yourself heal can be a real struggle – mentally and physically.

Abigail Lufkin knows this struggle firsthand. She broke her collarbone multiple times as she trained for years to become a member of the U.S. equestrian team, and then had to sit out the 2000 Summer Olympics due to an injury to her horse. ("Devastating," she says.)

Lufkin later became a marathoner and a competitive bicyclist. "And I broke my jaw and kind of my whole face on a mountain bike," she says. But she always got back up.

Lufkin was inspired by the sports psychologists she worked with and is now a therapist who specializes in sports psychology herself in Los Angeles. She says an injury is a shock to the system. "In the beginning, especially, it's kind of a grief process," she says. We grieve the loss of our mobility. We have to rest. We may have to take pain medicine and go to rehab. Our routine changes against our will.

Then our brains start trying to make sense of what happened. "There's often a lot of going over, repetitively, 'Why did this happen?' or 'What could I have done differently that this wouldn't have happened?' We kind of get stuck," Lufkin says.

If we're older than, say, 20, it's even more fraught. It can feel like it's the beginning of the end, she says. We ask ourselves, "Is it all just downhill from here?"

Here's how to adapt and give yourself space to bounce back.

Acknowledge your feelings

Recognizing these negative emotions and then letting go of them is the first step toward healing, says Lufkin.

Our reaction is biological, says Dr. Casey Cooper, a sports psychologist who works with professional athletes, teams and families in Orange County, Calif.

"When you are having stress-based thoughts, anxious thoughts, negative thoughts, your body is going to respond neurologically, and then also your central nervous system [responds] by releasing different chemicals into your bloodstream to deal with that stress," she says.

"People know about adrenaline, but there's also cortisol and other other things that, when added to the bloodstream, will increase inflammation and make recovery more difficult."

Tell yourself a different story

The way you approach your injury, like most any setback, can help you heal.

"There is really good research that suggests that your mindset, your attitude, your self-talk during your recovery will impact the duration and longevity of recovery," Cooper says.

For example, a recent study shows people with positive outlooks had fewer repeat heart attacks, even if they had a family history of heart disease.

And another shows participants with generalized anxiety disorder who practiced replacing negative thoughts with positive ones showed significant improvement.

Let's say you injured your knee and are having trouble walking up stairs – which just so happens to be this writer's problem right now. After years of jumping, lunging, hiking and competitive stair climbing, my middle-aged body is beginning to rebel, and I'm frustrated by having to rest.

Shift that energy to things you can control, Cooper suggests. Right now, "You might not be able to walk up the stairs without pain. And yes, that's frustrating. But in this exact moment in time, there is nothing [you] can do to magically shift that," she says.

What you can control, she says, is the way you're breathing. And you can control the stretching and training you'll do to strengthen the knee.

Lufkin says if you are prone to doomsday or worst-case scenario thinking, such as believing the injury is permanent or your fault, tell yourself another story — a positive one. "Another story is: This sucks but I'm going to PT [physical therapy.] I'm going to get stronger," she says.

Lean on your friends

Another way to heal more quickly is to surround yourself with people who support you. A recent study suggests that people who don't have a strong social network are more likely to experience chronic pain and depression six to 12 months after injury than those who report having strong social connections.

And while it's been harder to keep up that social network during the pandemic, there are more ways than ever to reach out electronically if necessary. So let someone make a meal for you or drive you to the doctor's office. Or just give them a call. It's good for you, Cooper says.

Give yourself time

Many people who experience a sports injury are high-achievers who have had decades of access to instant information and feel their bodies should instantly heal once they find all the answers online, notes Cooper. And that's just not how it works.

"We might have access to all of these answers with technology and such, but we're still bound by the limits of our anatomy and our genes, which are super old," she says.

It takes weeks and months to heal from many injuries, and often it takes longer to heal as we age. Some reports suggest that a 45-year-old recovers 15% to 18% slower than a 30-year-old with the same injury.

Even so, what athlete can resist comparison to Polish luger Mateusz Sochowicz, who overcame a gruesome leg injury in November to compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics last month? Or to U.S. cross-country skier Hannah Halvorsen, who competed after suffering a brain injury that rendered her unable to walk nearly three years ago?

Cooper says to avoid comparing yourself to professionals who have access to top-level training and conditioning. And remember, not all of an athlete's pain, grief and work shows on the glowing reports in the news or in their social media feeds.

If you are injured, it's important to rest when you need to rest. Don't give into the "social pressure of being 'productive,'" Cooper says, because otherwise you're just setting your recovery back.

Try something new

So while you're resting, icing or lying in bed instead of doing the activity you love, think about what else you could do with your new-found time.

What saved Lufkin, she says, was that she could still use a stationary bike while healing her broken collarbone.

With my bad knee, I know hiking is out for now, so this past weekend, I tried Pilates. It's a lot of stretching, breathing and holding planks. Now, it's not going to give me the same calorie burn as a jog, but I feel like I'm engaging my muscles and working up a sweat. It was a fun challenge and I think I'll keep doing it.

But you can get even more creative.

"Oftentimes, folks find something that's really interesting to them that they wouldn't have found otherwise – you know, like writing or painting or blogging," says Lufkin. You may already have the patience and determination you've learned from your sport and can apply it to something totally new.

"There's so many skills that translate from sport to life," she says. "We just have to figure out what they are."

April Fulton is a former NPR science desk editor living in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @fultonhere.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

April Fulton is a former editor with NPR's Science Desk and a contributor to The Salt, NPR's Food Blog.