Aches Vs. Pain - And When To See The Doctor

By Jessica Poole, Certified Athletic Trainer

Jess, when do I need to see a doctor? Jess, should I exercise through the pain or stop? Do I really need to take a few days off, I have a race in 3 weeks and I can’t lose time? 

These are some questions most athletic trainers hear on a regular basis. Now that you have been exercising or changed your intensity, you may have some aches sneaking — or more likely — barreling like a freight train into your day. So when should you worry? How do you know if you need to see a doctor? 

My disclaimer is this: If you are concerned and unsure, err on the side of caution and make an appointment. Better safe than sorry. With that said, here are my definitions and recommendations:

Pain via Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience arising from actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage. Pain includes not only the perception of an uncomfortable stimulus but also the response to that perception.” 

Pain via Jess Poole and years of experience and explaining: pay attention to the key wording in Taber’s definition — unpleasant sensory and emotional experience and response. Pain will stop you. If your “aches” stop you and you cannot fathom going on, that’s pain. Discontinue activity and see a doctor.

Pain can be sudden or gradual. For most exercise induced injuries, most are traumatic (or sudden onset) pain and need to be seen by a doctor.  Sometimes aches worsen and become painful and need to be seen by a doctor.

Aches via Taber: Pain that is persistent rather than sudden or spasmodic. It may be dull or severe. 

Aches via Jess: Dull aches usually don’t stop you, just make you notice you don’t feel normal. Some aches are not pleasant, but you can continue in discomfort. Should you see a doctor? This is the hard question and usually I suggest if the aches continue after time off, use of over the counter pain meds or anti-inflammatory meds, then yes, see a doctor. 

Dull aches are common with a change in intensity, activity level or type of exercise and should decrease on their own after a few days. If the aches continue past two weeks or markedly get worse then see your doctor. 

When should I go to the ER?
If you have a sudden and limiting pain in your muscles, bones or joints. 
If you have cardiac or respiratory issues
If you have pain that increases suddenly 
If you have profuse bleeding
If you lose nerve feeling or become numb
If any soft tissue (muscle, tendon, ligament) injury renders you immobile. Sprain, strain, dislocation…

This just a basic overview of aches and pains. In my next post I will fill you in on the  specific types of injuries that may accompany exercise and physical activity.  

How GMC Can Help

We know that even the smallest injury can hamper your performance and the enjoyment of your favorite sport. That's why our mission is simple: To help ALL athletes prevent injury, heal, manage pain and get off the sidelines sooner. 

Whether you want to prevent an injury or recover from one, Gwinnett Medical Center's sports medicine program can help get you back to doing the things you love. 

Venes, D. (2009). Taber's cyclopedic medical dictionary. FA Davis.

Starkey, C., Brown, S. D., & Ryan, J. (2009). Examination of orthopedic and athletic injuries. FA Davis.


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