Last week, we asked you on Twitter what it means to you when a doctor tells you to rest. Overall, you suggested the same general idea: definitely avoid the things that make the injury hurt, probably avoid as much activity as you can with that particular body part.
But here’s the problem with that: rest doesn’t fix an injury. Rest will reduce pain (somewhat), but it doesn’t fully repair damage or address the underlying problem. If your problem is overuse, but you need to be able to use your body part as much as you have been, rest won’t address that problem. It will give you a stopgap, but not a solution.
For both muscles and tendons, a lack of use results in loss of structure, a loss of strength, and decreased connection (that is, your body has a harder time activating things in the optimal, most efficient order). There’s a balance to strike between resting enough to decrease the pain, the symptom of your injury, but staying active enough and in the right way to address the underlying injury itself.
So we’re going to look at two things:
- What does “rest” really mean?
- How long do you have to rest to recover?
What does “rest” really mean?
When it comes to recovering from an injury, here’s what rest isn’t:
- Doing absolutely nothing with the injured body part
- Doing as much as you can without overwhelming pain that forces you to stop
- Hungrybox’s favorite Puff move (technically true, but the way to recover from an injury)
On the other hand, here’s what rest is:
- Using pain as one helpful indicator of when to stop, but not solely relying on it as your only indicator
- Avoiding activities that exacerbate your pain and other symptoms, like swelling
- Using the time that you’re not spending on activities that would normally cause you pain to address your symptoms with compression, ice/heat, stretching, exercise, or massage as appropriate
(Trying to figure out which one of those you should be using to address your symptoms? Check out Matt’s guide HERE)
There is absolutely a time to avoid activity in the recovery process. And there is absolutely a time to begin incorporating activity back into your life. But how do you know when that change happens?
How long do you have to rest to recover?
When it comes to muscle and tendon injuries, there are five general phases: acute, subacute, remodeling, functional, and return to competition/return to baseline. Rest is most important in the acute phase, and becomes less of a priority as you move through the phases of healing.
Acute Phase: 1-7 days after initial injury
In the acute phase, your body is responding to a disruption in normal function by becoming inflamed: hot, swollen, reddened, and painful in the area of injury. This is what happens right after an injury. In the case of an overuse injury, this will happen again and again until breakdown occurs. During this phase, the primary goals are to decrease inflammation and pain. The only exercises you need to do during this phase are ones that help you maintain your range of motion.
1HP Rx for Acute Phase: Use RICE–rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Keep moving, but only within a non-painful range of motion.
Subacute Phase: 3 days-3 weeks after initial injury
The subacute phase doesn’t start exactly the same time for any given injury; the subacute phase begins when inflammation starts to decrease.
This is the phase patients most commonly re-injure themselves in. You start to feel better; you think you’re getting better; you push it a little bit (or you push it a lot), past the point that your body is ready for. When that happens, you reset the clock back to the acute phase.
In the subacute phase, it’s important to reintroduce more movement and activity. Once you can move through a full range of motion without pain, it’s ok to start light strengthening exercises. Just like pain was a sign to limit range of motion during the acute phase, pain is a sign to decrease intensity, weight, or volume of exercises in the subacute phase.
1HP Rx for Subacute Phase: Continue to use ice and compression to manage inflammation. Start light strength exercises 2-3 times per day. Decrease the intensity of the exercises, the number of exercises, or the weight you use if pain worsens. Limit gaming sessions to non-painful activities and stick to shorter bouts of activity. Adjust your gaming setup for better ergonomics to avoid strain. (Not sure how to adjust your setup? Check out our guide.)
Remodeling Phase: 1-6 weeks after initial injury
During the remodeling phase, you’re essentially laying the right patterns for your muscles and tendons to follow. Rest starts to take a backstage to activity at this point–you’re not in pain more often than you are in pain, you’re doing harder, heavier, or a greater number of exercises.
1HP Rx for Remodeling Phase: Increase the weight, number, and intensity of exercises. Continue to pay attention to pain and fatigue. Use ice, compression, and heat as necessary to manage pain acutely; if pain persists, back off on exercise intensity and then begin building back up. Start to increase gaming time with scheduled breaks to manage your heat meter. (Not sure what the heat meter is? Check HERE)
Functional Phase: 2 weeks-6 months after initial injury
The functional phase is the point at which you take the recovery progress you’ve made in strength and flexbility and convert into something useful. This is when you start to reintegrate the movements that previously caused stress. It’s a gradual reintroduction, not a sudden one. It’s important to build up slowly. Don’t just jump back into hours of tech drills or labbing; gradually build back up while integrating good habits like warmups, breaks, and cooldowns.
1HP Rx for Functional Phase: Start to increase the length of gaming sessions, while still building in time for breaks, exercises, and post-gaming recovery.
Return to Competition/Return to Baseline: 3 weeks to 6 months after initial injury
In the last phase, you’re back to where you started–only better. You’re able to play at the same level you did previously, only without pain. In this phase, it’s important not to slip back into bad habits. Continuing good habits like completing warmups, taking and using breaks, doing cooldowns, and managing small issues as they crop up with ice, heat, stretching, or exercise are all key to staying uninjured.
1HP Rx for Return to Competition/Return to Baseline Phase: Keep up your good flexibility, strength, and break time habits.
The Bottom Line:
Movement is Medicine. We want to place our tissues in the optimal environment for healing. Gentle movement and specific exercises can be helpful even during the acute phases. Understanding which phase you are in can help direct your decision on what type of exercises to do! We’ll be making more content on exercises with this in mind – don’t forget to subscribe and look out for them!