If only you’d continued your football career . . . you’d be stronger! Athletes really can tolerate more pain than the average person, according to a recent review of 15 studies and more than 550 athletes and 330 people with normal activity levels in the June issue of Pain.
But just because they can power through workouts–with the help of massage therapy and professional trainers–doesn’t mean you should. The tricky part: decoding your symptoms. Here are four signs you shouldn’t ignore during a sweat session. (While you’re at it, don’t miss these 6 Health Worries You Need to Address.)
#1: A Sharp, Stabbing Pain
Muscle soreness is never sharp, generally never lasts more than a few days, and you can usually work out–with soreness fading as you get moving, says David Pearson, Ph.D., C.S.C.S.*D, FNSCA, and a Men’s Health advisor. That is pain you don’t need to worry about.
When you should worry: If you can specifically point to your pain (that is, your left ankle, or the right side of your knee), or if it’s lingered for 24 hours. “If you get a sharp pain when you try to raise your shoulder past a certain height, have a physician look at it,” says Pearson. Sharp pains can be signs of everything from muscle spasms to strains or tears.
One ankle is bigger than the other–it’s noticeable, but even if you’re not in excruciating pain, swelling is a sign that something’s wrong.
Why you should worry: Ligament tears can result in swelling. The pain depends on whether or not the tear is complete–when it is, you can sometimes feel less pain, says David McAllister, M.D., Chief of Sports Medicine of UCLA’s department of Orthopedic Surgery. A ligament tear like an ACL usually causes swelling within hours of an injury.
“We see hypoglycemia–or low blood sugar–in college athletes sometimes when they try to do a heavy workout early in the morning without enough carbohydrates in their system,” says Pearson. Low blood sugar can leave you feeling dizzy and lightheaded.
Why you should worry: Lightheadedness is step one in the fainting process–and ends in falling over. Sit down and get some sugar in your system. “Fall from passing out and you’ll end up with a major injury,” says Pearson.
#4: If You’ve Hit Your Head and Don’t Feel 100%
“Don’t put yourself at risk to take another blow to your head until you’ve recovered from the previous one,” says Allen Sills, M.D., professor of Neurological Surgery, Vanderbilt University. Too many times we don’t remove ourselves from the competition. The problem: “Minor injuries add up to catastrophic ones.”
Why you should worry: If you’ve banged your head recently–even if it wasn’t a full blown Smack Upside the Head–and feel dizziness, sensitivity to light or noise, or fogginess, you shouldn’t be working out. “Repeated head trauma causes a decline in brain function,” says Sills. Wait until all of your symptoms have been clear for a few days.
Additional research by Brian Dalek and Lara Rosenbaum.