If you’re an athlete who’s competed in sports for many years, chances are you’ve had an injury or two in that time. Those injuries can continue to bother you years later.
Chronic pain from old sports injuries is a common problem for older adults, whether you’re still competing or not. That pain may affect you in your daily life and make it hard for you to stay active or perform routine activities. But it is possible for you to treat and manage that pain.
Learn more about how you can deal with lingering pain from old injuries.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Thank you for subscribing!
You are already subscribed.
Sorry, an error occurred. Please try again later.
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
What Causes Chronic Pain from Old Sports Injuries?
Chronic pain in general can have many different causes. When it comes to sports injuries, acute injuries like broken bones, sprains, or strains can cause chronic pain years later. You may develop muscle or joint pain at the site of your initial injury or in surrounding areas.
Chronic pain often develops because you didn’t get proper treatment for the acute injury when it happened.
“The typical injuries that we see are your chronic, inflammation-type injuries,” says Jessica Falvo, MEd, LAT, athletic trainer and team leader, UPMC Sports Medicine. “We see a lot of that with our older patients. Things that they thought were just nothing at the time, those little nothings compound to one decent-sized injury.”
Overuse injuries like bursitis, tendonitis, or stress fractures can also lead to chronic pain — especially if you don’t let them heal properly.
“A lot of times, it’s those little things that with a little bit of rest and maybe some exercises, it goes away for a little bit,” Falvo says. “They take a break, but then they try to jump right back into what they were doing. And then the same thing happens over and over again. It’s like a cycle until they really address the problem.”
Chronic pain also can develop even if you did get treatment for your initial injury. For example, some people experience chronic pain after surgery.
Managing Chronic Pain from Old Injuries
Over 20% of U.S. adults have chronic pain, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ongoing muscle and joint pain can make it hard to take part in your chosen sport or even routine activities. But with the right actions, you can manage your pain. Falvo recommends a few tips to manage chronic pain from old injuries.
When you have chronic pain, your first instinct may lead you to stop all activity. But that can cause problems, too, Falvo says. She recommends moderate exercises that benefit both the affected muscles and joints and surrounding areas.
“Motion is lotion for your joints,” Falvo says. “Rest is a good thing to have, recovery is a good thing to have, but if you completely shut down and don’t do anything about it, your joints will actually not get any benefit from it. Whereas if you back off of what you’re doing and do exercises for those joints that help strengthen the muscles surrounding the area and stretch the muscles surrounding the area, then the motion actually lubricates the joint in a positive way.
“So, I’ve always said to try to keep moving in some capacity, even if it’s something very mild.”
One exception, Falvo says, is an injury like a dislocation or a fracture that restricts movement.
Falvo also recommends consulting an athletic trainer or another licensed medical professional for recommended exercises. That way, you can ensure you’re getting the most benefit from your movement.
You shouldn’t stop moving entirely, Falvo says. But you also shouldn’t try to perform too much activity with chronic pain — or else you could make it worse. Striking the right balance between when to rest and when to move can be tricky, but it’s important.
The RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) can help manage the pain from many chronic injuries.
Medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help people manage chronic pain. Examples of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Many NSAIDs are available over the counter.
In cases of severe chronic pain, you may need a prescription for a stronger pain reliever. Talk to your doctor about what medication is right for your pain.
Practicing healthy habits — like eating a proper diet and getting enough sleep — can help you take care of your body. If you need to make changes to your current lifestyle, it’s never too late to start, Falvo says.
“Start small and work your way up, just like with exercise,” she says.
Don’t neglect your mental health
Chronic pain can be difficult to deal with beyond its physical toll. Many people also struggle with mental health burdens like anxiety or depression because of physical pain. Making sure you take care of your physical health as well as your mental health can benefit you in the long run.
“The mental health portion of an older athlete is huge because when you get hurt, it’s not just your sport. It’s your livelihood,” Falvo says.
“In general, people tend to gravitate toward the negative when they get hurt. And so, if you can try and spin it to a positive light, you end up just performing better.”
In the most severe cases of chronic pain, you may need surgery to repair the damage. Falvo says surgery is generally an option when other methods of treatment don’t solve the problem.
“If you can go through those other steps beforehand and get the relief that you need, then that prolongs your ability to move in a more fluid way without surgery,” she says.
When to See a Doctor About Chronic Pain
Pain is common in life, especially if you’re an active person. But you may need to see someone if:
- Your pain isn’t improving or is getting worse despite pain management methods like rest and medication.
- Your pain is interfering with your ability to perform daily activities (using the stairs, getting items out of a cabinet, playing with grandchildren or pets, and so forth).
Talking to a medical professional may help you manage your pain better and stay active, Falvo says.
“If you’re struggling with an injury as an adult and you’re doing X, Y, and Z and things aren’t getting better, then just make sure you’re taking a look at the whole picture,” she says. “Get to know your nutritionist, get to know your sports performance [specialist]. Get to know your whole medical care team. I think that would be very beneficial to you in the long run, especially if you are an older athlete and you want to continue.”
At UPMC Sports Medicine, we help athletes of all ages prevent, manage, and rehabilitate injuries. For more on the services we provide, visit our website.
About Sports Medicine
An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.