What to Do When It Hurts to Exercise

Exercising with pain can be a catch-22. Certain exercises can ease arthritis pain and keep stiffened joints limber. When you exercise, you strengthen muscles that help stabilize your joints. However, if you over-exercise, or go about it the wrong way, you can further damage the joints you’re trying to protect.

As a physiatrist at the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center, I work with athletes who make a living being active. When they’re hurt, they need to know when it’s best to exercise through the pain, or when they need to lay off for a while so that they don’t further injure themselves. So, how do you know when to exercise through the pain and when to give yourself a break?

My rule of thumb for exercising in pain: if the pain doesn’t get worse during exercise (and stays below a 3/10 on pain scale), and if you don’t feel increased pain later that night or the next day after exercising, then it was most likely a safe form of exercise.

On the other hand, if the pain becomes severe as you’re exercising, or you have an increase in pain after exercise, you probably shouldn’t continue with that particular activity. Additionally, if you experience any painful catching/locking (especially in the knee), don’t push through the pain. If these symptoms persist, or if the pain is present at night while you’re resting, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with a physician.

Low-impact, aerobic activity is the best way to get exercise and minimize pain from orthopedic conditions. Stationary or recumbent bicycling, elliptical trainers, and swimming are great examples of low-impact ways to get your heart rate up.

Are you dealing with pain when you exercise? Are you unsure whether to work through it, or stop until you feel better? Share your experience with us. We welcome your questions and feedback in the comments section below.

About Kenneth Mautner, MD


Dr. Mautner is an assistant professor of orthopedics, as well as an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, serving both Spine and Sports Medicine. In addition to being a consulting physician for the Georgia Tech Athletics, he is head team physician for Agnes Scott College and team physician for Emory University Athletics. Dr. Mautner began practicing at Emory in 2004.

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