When does a ‘niggle’ become an injury?

It’s not uncommon to see injured patients who have been in pain for more than a few months without seeking medical advice or commenced any form of action plan to resolve their pain.

While the first response of many may be to question “who ignores pain for that long?” The more important question is “what is a niggle that will clear up on its own and what requires professional attention.”

We’ve all had a bit of soreness after training. If we sought medical advice for every ache, we’d all be poorer for the experience and would eventually start to ignore the actual nasty stuff.

So what are the early warning signs to look out for and what can be safely trained through?

Here’s a quick checklist for injury indicators:

Asymmetrical symptoms

One-sided pain is often an indicator of injury and usually isn’t a sign of general training soreness as normally load is distributed relatively evenly across both sides of our body.

Location of symptoms

If you feel your pain is present more in your joints rather than your muscles, it is likely that this isn’t your typical post exercise pain. Muscles do suffer minor damage post training, particularly resistance training or a new type of training stimulus. This is important to get fitter and stronger however joints do not require this process and joint pain may be a sign that you have overloaded a certain area of the body.

Duration of symptoms

If the soreness after your training lingers around for more than 48 hours it could indicate an issue worth addressing. Prolonged symptoms usually indicates an inflammatory process is taking place longer than normal which is not ideal for ongoing training.

Repetition of symptoms

If you find that you keep getting sore in the same area, it could be an indication of a problem which needs to be addressed. For some conditions i.e. tendinopathy and bone stress, the longer the condition is present for, the longer it takes to recover so it is better to get it addressed early.

Progressive worsening

If the pattern indicates that it’s gradually worsening, you shouldn’t wait for it to stop you moving. Seek help early rather than waiting for the inevitable.

Change in pain pattern

If your “normal” soreness after training begins to change, it could indicate that you have more than just muscle soreness going on. Changes can include new pains, worsening pain or pain spreading further up/down the leg.

Sometimes an honest look at your situation is all you need to assess where you’re at – and if you fall into one of these categories, just get it checked out. There’s nothing worse than having months of training gains (or your lifestyle) derailed by a preventable injury.

Written by

Pete Colagiuri
Sports Physiotherapist

Pete has over 20 years experience as a Physiotherapist and specialises in running biomechanics and complex injuries. He believes that you must identify and fix the underlying cause of an injury, to recover faster, prevent recurrences and improve performance.

Pete Colagiuri - Sports Physio