by Geoff Rand
When I was in the Army, we pretty much ran on Motrin. Before a long run, after a long run, after a long ruck march, after a vigorous Physical Fitness Test, before bed, after waking up, we took it all day long. We called it Ranger Candy or Vitamin M. The medics handed it out like M&Ms. I’ve since found out that this was a horrible practice and suppressing the body’s natural pain response is extremely counter productive to the healing process.
Inflammation is a response from the immune system after experiencing tissue damage. Tissue damage can be in the form of micro tears that are normal occurrences when building muscle by lifting weights or stressing our joints when running or jumping. It can also be more serious damage like a strain, sprain, or tear.
Whatever the cause or degree of injury, the body’s response is the same. The inflammatory process happens in three phases. In the first phase, blood saturates the site of the injury, which causes heat, swelling and associated pain, and stiffness. Think of this phase as the fire department being called to put water on a fire. Then, specialized white blood cells come in and soak up the damaged cell debris. They are like the trash trucks hauling away the garbage. In the third phase, cells called macrophages move in and start to rebuild the damage. They are the construction crew.
Inflammation is a necessary process for the body to heal and become stronger. The swelling and pain produced is a signal to discontinue the activity that caused the injury while the body recovers and rebuilds. Studies have shown that the more you stress your body, the more resistant it is to experiencing the pain from inflammation. In other words, the harder you work your muscles and joints, the more stress they are able to take before they start to signal you to slow down. Think of how you feel on your first day back at CrossFit after returning from vacation. You need to rebuild your tolerance to the stresses your body was able to withstand before you left.
If you train too hard for too long without adequate recovery time, the body will become overwhelmed trying to put out all the fires, and things will start to break down. Muscles and joints become chronically inflamed or degenerate to the point of a serious injury occurring.
Recovery time is essential, but your regimen should not include popping a pill for pain. Studies have shown that taking certain pain medications after a workout can nearly totally negate any gains you may have made during that session.
In the medical community and society as a whole, there has been a trend to treat pain as an illness by taking medication to suppress pain. In certain cases taking pain meds is appropriate, like with a broken bone or after surgery, but for every bump and bruise and general soreness after a workout, it is not. Suppressing the natural healing process might make the pain go away, but it will also delay and increase the recovery time. And, taking some common pain reducing medications can cause other undesirable effects throughout the body.
In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at what NSAIDs are and how they affect the body when taken as well as some alternatives to taking them.