Dr. Alice Holland DPT is Director of Stride Strong Physical Therapy in Sellwood, Portland, an outpatient physical therapy clinic dedicated to servicing runners’ needs.
Running injuries are sometimes worn like a badge of honor for a lot of runners. To some, injuries imply long mileage, hard work, sweat, and dedication to the sport. But what most runners don’t realize is you can treat a lot of these injuries quickly with at-home remedies for immediate pain relief.
Here we highlight a few of the most common running injuries and how to take care of them from home. (Note: these self-treatments should be taken as a 1st defense measure, and are not meant to replace the thorough evaluation and treatment of a physician or PT.)
IT Band Syndrome
Pain from IT Band Syndrome tends to aggregate around the side of the knee and along the side of your thigh. If this sounds like what you’ve got, you’re going to have to get very friendly with your favorite foam roller. Lie on your affected side, IT Band on the foam roller, and give yourself a deep tissue massage around the area of soreness. Avoid rolling at or past the knee joint for safety. 2 sets of 1 minute of rolling will do the trick, but the key to digging yourself out of this problem is consistency - roll on the foam roller twice a day at the IT Band until the pain abates. If the rolling feels just a bit too intense for you, you may want to switch to a foam roller that is more malleable and less firm so the process is more comfortable. Warming yourself up by doing some cardio, hot yoga, or heating pad also allows the IT Band to soften up before foam rolling. Our favorite medium-firmness foam roller is made of plain foam and sold at most shoe and athletic stores.
Shin splints are an umbrella term for a strain of the muscles around the tibia (lower leg) and hurt the most when loading the foot during running. The best immediate at-home remedy for this is over-the-counter orthotics. Orthotics will allow for support of the arch so the muscle is kept at a more rested length. Temporary use (~ 2 weeks) is usually effective enough to alleviate the strain. Foam rolling and using “The Stick” self-massage device on the area of soreness also help relieve the soft tissue pain and tightness. We usually recommend Superfeet to most of our patients. Warning: any resting redness or swelling in the limb, or sharp pain with a walking step is indicative of Compartment Syndrome (a medical emergency) or Stress Fracture and warrants an immediate call to a physician.
Often caused by unsupportive shoes or a less-than-tolerable increase in mileage, plantar fasciitis can cause pain at the bottom of the foot, sometimes near the heel bone and sometimes along the inner arch. The first line of defense is to massage the foot with a tennis ball along the sore areas. Second line of defense is to stretch the calf copiously because tight calves have a direct relationship to plantar fascia tightness. Third line of defense would be some over-the-counter orthotics to help reduce the weight-bearing strain – Gelled heel pads cushion the force of landing on the heel, while arch support insoles help buttress the foot.
When to use ice
Ice is best used for inflammatory conditions so look for swelling, warmth or throbbing (sometimes sharp) pain. Frozen peas in a pillow case works well, and apply it for 10 minutes at a time. Ice is most effective for joint pain, knee pain, ankle sprains, and achilles tendonitis. Runners also sometimes use ice baths to dunk themselves in for overall inflammation control and joint pain. Diabetics and patients with vascular disease should consult with a physician before icing.
When to use heat
Heat is most effective on tight fascia and muscles. Symptoms to look for are aching pain, tightness and flexibility problems. Moist heat works best, so we recommend microwavable bean bag pillows filled with flaxseed, rice of barley bean rather than a dry heating blanket. Apply for no more than 15 minutes for muscle relief. Warm showers and hot tub baths are nice to do for muscle spasms and strains – especially those that are more chronic in nature. Heating before stretching also help gain more range of motion. Heating is best on piriformis strains, low back pain, and quad muscle strains. Diabetics and patients with vascular disease should consult with a physician before heating.
When to call your Physical Therapist
Try to save time and cost by treating yourself first at home with any of the above remedies, but don’t hesitate to come in if the pain continues to be a regular nuisance or interferes with your daily activities (running counts!). A lot of running injuries stem from biomechanical problems that could be solved with home exercises and an alteration in your gait. If your aches and remain after 1-2 weeks, or if you feel that your pain is affecting the way you run, a PT can help with targeted manual therapy and exercises to get you moving better.
When to call your Physician
If your pain is more than just a nuisance but drastically affects your ability to sleep, eat, walk or breathe call your physician right away. Infection, worsening pain, or swelling that does not improve with rest or ice need medical attention immediately.