How to reduce risk for a Sports Injury

Q: Is it dangerous to basically just exercise on the weekend? I don’t have time to workout during the week.

A: Weekend athletes can run into problems. Boring as it sounds, you well know that regular and moderate are key concepts in health, whether you apply them to sports, relaxation, relationships, food or even oxygen. If possible, try to get up and shake your booty a bit each day — walk, dance around the living room, try a yoga or aerobics class, go to the pool, do a sustained spell of gardening or housecleaning. Just move! And when you do go out for the weekend hike, kyak trip or soccer match, make sure to warm up and cool down. Warm up stretches should include at least a few minutes on each of the major muscles groups: calves, thighs (front and back), hips, low back, abdomen, chest, arms. Stretch slowly, using your breath to sustain the stretch. You don’t want to push to the point of discomfort. Don’t bounce cold muscles. Walking slowly, swinging and punching the arms, then easing into a brisk walk, is an adequate warm up for running. Even better is to take the time to stretch into some low lunges and biceps/triceps curls before beginning the aerobic portion.One thing to understand about exercise is that we have very small reserves for aerobic respiration at a tissue level once we begin to raise the heart rate. As a rule of thumb, it is best to not get so out of breath that it’s impossible to talk. Not that you should aspire to engage in prolonged articulate discourse with your running partner, heavens forbid! But if you can’t even gasp out a pleasant remark from time to time, you’re probably overdoing it. Anyway, after about 60 seconds of working out with your heart rate up, the immediate oxygen tissue stores are consumed and you go into what is called anaerobic respiration. The by-product of anaerobic respiration is lactic acid, which is what creates that muscle “burn” for the first 20 minutes of a hard work-out, especially one without a warm-up. The better oxygenated our tissues, the less problem we will have with lactic acid build-up and burn. Breathe into your belly through your nose whenever possible. Make sure to get regular and adequate sleep and water to promote a healthy workout. If you feel thirsty while working out, you are already dehydrated. We tend to be chronically dehydrated in this culture because our foods contain lots of salt and sugar, which requires lots of dilution, and because most people don’t drink enough pure water. No other liquids, not even herbal teas, can substitute for the requisite 6-9 glasses of pure, room-temperature water daily.

The rest of this essay will focus on first-aid and natural medicines for sports injuries.

The acronym for how to treat an acute sports injury is R.I.C.E. which stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Depending on the circumstances, this usually means as soon as possible after the injury, for the first 24 hours after the injury. If the problem is simply a cramp, the antidote is to stretch the cramped muscles. So, if you get a cramp in your calf, gently but firmly stretch the calf by strongly bringing the toes up towards the face, while pushing the heel down. You could also do this sitting down and passively pushing the foot into this position. If you get muscle cramps a lot, you are probably low in magnesium, and need supplementation — 400 mg daily should do it. Most pain is, fundamentally, a temporary or chronic lack of oxygen. Many of the little wandering pains felt during a work-out cna be remedied readily by some extra deep breathing.

After the first 24 hours with a sports injury, alternating hot and cold packs are generally more effective to promote healing than either heat or ice alone. The contrast of hot and cold acts like a local pump to bring fresh blood (oxygen and nutrients) to the injury and flushing out the debris from the damage. Besides rest and water, the very best way to reduce swelling which forms around the residual damaged tissue post-injury is by judicious use of protein digesting enzymes, called proteases. Most of the “debris” from an injury is tiny scraps of protein that used to be intact muscle fiber. The fruits papaya and pineapple are naturally very high in proteases, containing papain and bromelain (the botanical name for the pineapple family is Bromeliad). An old trick used by opera singers is keeping pineapple juice in the wings, to gargle and swallow between entrances, thus keeping their throats clear. Supplementation with proteases post-operation or injury must be taken between meals, otherwise the digestive activity will be directed towards the food, not towards the tissue injury.

Other foodstuffs to help with sports injuries are the natural anti-inflammatories. My favorite is Flax oil; others are Evening Primrose oil, or Borage oil. Natives of the Far and Middle East use curries not only as food preservatives, and for flavor, but for the medicinal effects of the spices in curry. In particular, Turmeric (or Curcumin) is a potent anti-inflammatory agent, especially when combined with proteases such as bromelain. For pain, valerian root works well as a tea or tincture. You know it’s the real stuff if it smells like old tennis shoes. Arnica montana, homeopathically or topically in a liniment, is a famous wound and bruise remedy, particularly when there is an element of shock involved in the trauma. Cayenne pepper (organic) is part of my first aid kit because it is extremely effective in stanching blood flow from an open wound. And, no, it doesn’t sting. After the wound has healed up, there are a number of topically applied poultices that can expedite the final phases of healing, such as comfrey leaf, plantain whole plant or calendula flowers in a warm hot cloth and applied to the injured area twice daily until all pain is resolved. There are also widely available liniments to aid circulation and reduce bruising such as Ben Gay, Tiger Balm, White Flower Lotion, Vicks Vapor Rub — all of which have camphor as their active ingredient. In closing, accept a word of caution about using braces, corsets, ace bandaging or other forms of mechanical support. Don’t become dependent on these structures. The idea is to have your musculature support your bones. If you know you’re going to have prolonged weight bearing on a recently injured joint, then yes, please do wear a support or brace for a few hours. Never sleep with these devices on, and don’t use them for light or routine activity for longer than a few days or a week after the acute phase of the injury is resolved.