Muscle Pain in Elite Athletes
This summer I had the privilege of working with the Canadian men’s rugby team. Like all elite teams, they face the constant battle of balancing high performance and staying healthy. I joined the team to help them with getting painful injuries to settle, muscle cramps to ease and players back to full strength with the confidence and ability to train and play without any reservations. Travelling across the country I met many incredible people, and learned a tremendous amount.
There’s one key takeaway from this experience that I want to share with you, and it’s this –
No matter how strong and fit a human is, if they use a muscle beyond its capability, it can and does fail.
Once a muscle has failed and locked into a painful latched state, even the inspired and tireless effort of the physical therapists attempts to loosen it will not be successful. The level of the athlete is unimportant, from the recreational player to the best in the world, it makes no difference. I know that practicing just one rugby set scrum would likely do in my back, while it takes more than a few hundred or thousand scrums for these elite players to experience the same problem.
The good news is that treatment is just as effective.
The patterns of muscle involvement in these elite athletes were no different from my regular patients. The response to injections were similar and the surprise at the sudden cessation of pain just as rewarding for me. You could argue that the stakes are much higher for these young men, who have put everything into the game and desperately wanted to be part of the team headed to the Rugby World Cup this month. Athletes dream of that moment: sixty thousand screaming fans, worldwide TV coverage and their moment of athletic glory. But the moment is fleeting… and they have to be uninjured to get there.
If I had one take-home message from these men for myself, my family and my patients, it would be to get skin in the game every day. Commit to doing whatever it takes to get healthy, strong and fit. Without good health, every task, interaction and performance is likely to be substandard, less than any of us really is capable of.
By challenging themselves, elite athletes redefine the boundaries of human capability and, in doing so, challenge the rest of us to push our own boundaries. Meeting that challenge requires almost perfect health and close attention to every aspect of it. We all stand in awe of the disabled who work through their disabilities to achieve their goals, because of the sheer difficulties they face in persevering against all odds. I have not yet worked with disabled athletes, but I know they push the limits to optimize their health in every way they can.
The question you need to ask yourself.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this – if good health is paramount for an elite athlete and can be achieved with knowledge, care and effort, why should we all not take the same care of ourselves?
And so it comes down to knowledge. What really is the right thing to do? How can we best stay healthy or find our way back to health when things have gone awry? It really comes down to what makes sense, whom do you trust and what is right for you?
I came up against these questions in my work with the rugby players. All of them had been diagnosed and treated by the best physicians and therapists available. Virtually no costs were spared in getting them over their injuries and ready for the World Cup Tournament. Yet, too many of them remained “injured”, feeling pain when they moved in certain ways.
Without going into clinical details and advancing my cause at the expense of others, I was encouraged to find that much of the pain was originating in muscles that responded well to treatment. Again, it was the diagnosis that was misleading, not the treatment. I am sure if the treating specialists had muscle pain as an option, they would have included treatment in their all-out bid to safely return the athlete to the field. Osteitis pubis, sports hernias, AC joint inflammation and degenerative disk disease all improved markedly or completely when the nearby affected muscles were treated.
The hardest sell I faced was getting the team to embrace magnesium as an important every-day supplement. After giving my short muscle pain talk, I found that almost everyone was really interested to increase their magnesium intake. While it’s too early to quantify the benefits of supplementation in these elite athletes, I know that given time they will see increased performance and fewer injuries. How do I know? I see the results in my clinic everyday. And it turns out when it comes to muscles, it doesn’t matter whether you are an elite athlete or a couch potato, pain is a signal that cannot be ignored.
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