New Cures for the Common Injury
For most sports injuries, doctors still prescribe an old standby, RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. “Those things can be useful if applied correctly, but they’ve become a catchall,” says Mark Cucuzzella, M.D., professor of family medicine at West Virginia University and director of the Natural Running Center. “There’s no training for sports injury in medical school, so care tends toward treating symptoms. The only way to heal is by diagnosing what’s causing the symptoms, which is often about structural imbalance, muscular weakness, and improper form.” While stressing that you should always consult a sports-medicine specialist, Cucuzzella recommends the following treatments for the most common maladies.
Patellafemoral Pain Syndrome
A.K.A. Runner's Knee
What It Is: Chronic pain, usually below the kneecap, exacerbated by running, cycling, and climbing or descending hills.
Old Medicine: Cut back on mileage; wear a knee brace.
New Thinking: It’s rarely about the knee itself. “Knee pain often stems from weak hips and feet,” says Cucuzzella. Which is why a knee brace won’t help.
Latest Cure: Exercises that strengthen the feet and gluteus medius muscles. Single-leg work in particular helps bring your stance into alignment, so spend a few minutes several times a day balancing on one foot. As your strength progresses, move to single-leg squats.
Tibial Stress Syndrome
A.K.A. Shin Splints
What It Is: Tenderness and pain along the shins, usually from running shock. Untreated, shin splints can lead to stress fractures.
Old medicine: Stop running; take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen.
New Thinking: “Cutting training curtails adaptation,” Cucuzzella says, which means you’ll be weaker when you start up again, and the pain will return.
Latest Cure: Retrain your gait. “Runners tend to get shin splints because of heel striking,” he says. A professional trainer can help you develop a softer gait, but even switching to a level shoe and shortening your stride may help.
What It Is: Irritation of the plantar fascia, the connective tissue that supports the arch of the foot.
Old Medicine: Wear orthotics; get cortisone injections; in acute cases, surgery.
New Thinking: “The root cause is weak feet and a lack of range of motion in the plantar fascia and ankle,” Cucuzzella explains. “Ice, tape, and orthotics can alleviate the pain, but you have to strengthen the foot to fix this long-term.”
Latest Cure: Walk barefoot to help rebuild foot musculature. Heel-drop exercises (standing on a step on the ball of your foot and dropping your heel) and conditioning your big toe by repeatedly pressing it into the ground and releasing it will also help.
Iliotibial-Band Friction Syndrome
What It Is: Pain or stinging on the outside of the knee, at the hip, or anywhere along the outside of the thigh, caused by the IT band rubbing over the bony protrusion on the outside of the femur.
Old Medicine: Stretch; use a foam roller to massage and relieve pressure points.
New Thinking: The root cause is poor alignment, which stems from weak hips and weak feet. “I don’t prescribe stretching and rolling,” says Cucuzzella. “I’ve seen people rip their IT bands off the fibular head with overaggressive stretching.”
Latest Cure: Single-leg squats and one-leg step-ups will strengthen your gluteus medius to help you regain hip stability and alignment.
What It Is: Sensitivity and tenderness along the Achilles tendon brought on by overuse and tightness in the heel cord.
Old Medicine: Stop exercising; ice the Achilles.
New Thinking: Though the name implies swelling, most cases are chronic, degenerative conditions with little inflammation. Says Cucuzzella: “You need to cultivate ankle ‘mostability,’ which is a good balance of motion and stability.”
Latest Cure: Regain mobility in the Achilles tendon by walking barefoot and performing basic squats. Stand on the edge of a stair and drop the heel of your injured leg down, then elevate back up with your healthy leg.
A Sticky Solution
Kinesio-taping injured legs, ankles, and shoulders has been a physical-therapy mainstay for years—the tape effectively dulls pain receptors and reduces inflammation by stimulating circulation, while the placement of the tape fosters a healthy range of motion by reinforcing the body. But the most effective adhesion patterns were so complex (think volleyball star Kerri Walsh in the 2008 Olympics) that the benefits were usually reserved for the pros. No more. SpiderTech’s new supports, or Spiders, come in 17 precut patterns to treat the most frequent athletic injuries, like sore knees, lower-back pain, and strained hamstrings. The Full Knee Spider helps with patella alignment and increases blood flow to calm inflammation—perfect during or after a hard mountain-bike ride or powder day. The Postural Spider fits across your upper back to improve posture and relieve neck fatigue while road riding. And the Lymphatic Spider can be placed on bruises, strains, and swelling to increase blood flow and improve drainage, speeding recovery. It’s like an ACE bandage, a medicated Band-Aid, and a physical therapist all in one. ($7; spidertech.com)