Athletes put a lot of strain on their bodies, leaving them with constant aches and pains – and a need for relief. Unfortunately, this has left many elite and endurance athletes with a serious prescription problem. That’s why, in order to prevent excessive use of opioids and other heavy-duty pain relievers, many athletes and oversight bodies embrace a range of alternative pain management solutions to help athletes stay in the game.
PT To The Front
Since athletes are constantly moving, logic would suggest that they need a break when they get off the field – but that might not be true. Rather, many experts recommend ongoing physical therapy for identifying injuries, managing pain, and improving strength and stamina for improved performance on the field – and it’s the only pain management approach that can prevent injuries before they happen.
Prioritizing Joint Protection
Ask any professional athlete and they’ll tell you that major joint injuries end careers; sometimes it’s just not possible to come back from them and perform at the same level. With that in mind, sports medicine now places a significant priority on joint protection because, while muscles may heal fairly well, when a joint wears out, there’s not much left to be done except replace it entirely.
Enter preventative medicine. One simple step, equipping athletes with orthotics not only helps reduce foot injuries and protect the ankle joint, but by reducing pronation or supination, orthotics can also protect the hip and knee joints. It’s all about proper weight distribution.
Of course, orthotics are not enough to prevent serious joint issues, and injuries will happen regardless of preventative measures. That’s why more athletes are turning to stem cell therapy to treat joint injuries and prevent surgical interventions. Stem cells encourage natural healing of joints, tendons, and muscles and reduce inflammation; researchers suggest stem cell treatment may even prevent the majority of knee replacement surgery in the next few years.
Address The Stress
Despite common perceptions, not all pain is physical. In fact, psychological stress can exacerbate physical pain. One modality that can address both pain and stress is sensory deprivation therapy, which involves floating in a large container of Epsom salts at body temperature. Many athletes take advantage of float tanks because they take pressure off the spine and ease joint pain. Additionally, Epsom salt is rich in magnesium, which can ease muscle pain, and the sensation of floating – away from light and sound – provides mental renewal and helps the body enter a state of deep relaxation.
For athletes who aren’t looking to relax, but are hoping to keep moving despite an injury, another way to take the stress off the hips, legs, and feet is by using an anti-gravity treadmill. These innovative machines can help athletes work out without exacerbating broken bones or injured joints; over time, the user can increase the degree of weight bearing. Many find that this helps to boost mood, relieve pain, and reduce muscle atrophy, all of which can speed the recovery process.
One final pain management alternative popular among elite athletes is traditional Chinese medicine, such as acupuncture and cupping. You might remember that cupping was very popular during the 2016 Olympics – athletes, especially swimmers, were covered in cupping marks. The therapy works as a kind of very targeted massage, with an added heat element. As a treatment, then, cupping encourages improved blood flow and speeds the healing process. Regardless of their preferred form, though, athletes turn to traditional Chinese medicine because it has a long history as both a healing modality and a way of better connecting people with their bodies.
Unlike cupping, which has a clear physiological effect on the body and particularly on the muscles, acupuncture is less well understood. The ancient tradition uses needles to engage the body’s own healing mechanisms by stimulating part of a network of 2,000 different pressure points. The key to acupuncture is simple: when the right areas are stimulated, the body releases natural pain relievers and neurotransmitters.
If they’re going to thrive in a competitive industry, athletes can’t rely on opioids and other high strength pain killers – they need to address their pain before it becomes debilitating. And they’re not alone in that. In fact, we can all learn something from the ways athletes address chronic pain and injury. It’s possible to be proactive about pain, rather than being caught in a constant cycle of treatment and injury and instead foster the connection between wellness and fitness.