When you start working your body after a long period of inactivity you will be putting strains on body parts that have not been strengthened through regular use. Even if you are already well established in your exercise routine, the rigours of constant exercise can put stress on your body. So injuries are a real possibility for everyone who is fit or getting fit.
Injury prevention is the ideal aim but, if injuries do occur, you want to support your body as best you can through the healing process to get you back on the road again as soon as is right for your body. Taking a natural holistic approach to injury management and prevention is not only effective and gentle, it can be downright pleasurable as well. Following are some key natural measures and ingredients you can use as part of your healthy healing strategy.
Antioxidant vitamins such as A, C and E and bioflavonoids as well as antioxidant minerals such as zinc and selenium are an essential part of injury management. When tissue has been damaged and is repairing itself it’s these antioxidant nutrients that are used in large amounts by the affected tissue to do the repairs. So, when an injury occurs, you will have an increased need for all these nutrients to support the extra demand. Vitamin C and zinc, in particular, are essential for wound healing.
The herb arnica (Arnica montana) has long been used as a remedy for bruising, swelling and muscle soreness. Taken internally as a herb, it can be toxic in high doses but as a cream and taken as a homoeopathic it can be a very effective treatment for bruising, particularly if taken just after the incident occurs.
Bruises form when small blood vessels are damaged by an impact and begin to bleed under the skin. Some research has suggested that arnica contains anti-inflammatory substances that may repair and strengthen these blood vessels and minimise bruising. In one study, facelift patients were randomly assigned to take 12 doses of either homoeopathic arnica pills or a placebo, starting on the morning of their surgery. During their recovery, photographs were taken to chart the changes in facial bruising.
Arnica patients’ bruises tended to be smaller, particularly on the first day after surgery and then one week later. They also showed a different pattern in bruise healing. Arnica patients steadily improved after the first post-operative day, whereas placebo patients tended to get worse before improving. Either as a gel or as homoeopathic pills, arnica should be part of your first response when bruising occurs.
If your muscles are sore, a delightful treatment might be to get stuck into some cherries or cherry juice. Researchers at the University of Vermont found that drinking a glass of cherry juice after exercising may help ease those aching muscles. In their study, subjects drank either 350ml of a blend of fresh cherry juice and apple juice or a placebo twice daily for eight days. On the fourth day, the men participated in several rounds of elbow exercises. Overall, the men experienced much less pain and retained more muscle strength after exercising when drinking the cherry juice blend than they did while drinking the placebo.
In another study, researchers at London South Bank University had trained athletes drink 30ml cherry juice concentrate twice daily for seven days before to and two days after an intense round of strength training. The athletes’ recovery after the cherry juice concentrate was significantly faster compared to when they drank a placebo juice.
Cherries probably have this recovery-promoting effect due their high levels of antioxidant polyphenols, which give them their rich red colour. Although it is cherries that have been studied here, any rich source of polyphenols such as grapes, beetroot or even tea might have similar effects.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a flowering plant that has been used for centuries in creams and poultices to treat joint and muscle pain, bruises and strains. Studies have shown that comfrey extracts have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects as well as the capacity to stimulate tissue repair.
Your ankle joints are particularly prone to sprain and strain injuries because of their small size and heavy load. In one study, healthy adults with sprained ankles were randomly assigned to use either a comfrey cream or a topical anti-inflammatory medicine (diclofenac gel). Each person entered the study within six hours of being injured and began using about 2g of the cream or gel four times a day for one week. Pain level and the degree of swelling were measured upon entering the study, after four days and after six to eight days.
The people using comfrey cream had significantly greater improvement in pain and swelling than those using diclofenac gel. Furthermore, those using comfrey reported faster and more complete recovery than those using diclofenac.
In another study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people with upper or lower back pain were treated three times a day for five days with either a dummy ointment or one containing comfrey root extract. The results showed that pain intensity fell by an average of 95 per cent for those using comfrey ointment compared to only 39 per cent in the placebo group. Comfrey root also was also fast acting, relieving pain after an hour.
In the late 17th century, the medicinal qualities of the salts derived from the mineral waters of Epsom, England, were extolled in a paper written by Nehemia Grew. The constituents of these salts were primarily magnesium and sulphur and this combination was found to be a fantastic remedy for aching muscles. Studies have shown that magnesium sulphate can be absorbed through the skin and magnesium has muscle-relaxing effects. Sulphur is believed to promote protein production in joints, which is why Epsom salts may relieve arthritis pain. Just add Epsom salts to your bath after exercise and your muscles and joints will be the better for it.
Essential oils offer many methods of healing and there are some that are particularly useful for soothing an exercising body. Wintergreen oil is 90 per cent methyl salicylate, which is closely related to aspirin. Since the 19th century, wintergreen oil has been used in ointments to soothe pain and relieve aching muscles. Peppermint essential oil is rich in menthol, meaning it is anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic, so it will relieve both inflamed, tired muscles and muscles that are in spasm or cramp. Peppermint also leaves a cooling, pain-relieving sensation on your skin. Eucalyptus oil rubbed into the skin has a pain-relieving effect and it also promotes blood flow to the area where applied, hence stimulating healing of strains and sprains. Combine these three oils into a carrier oil such as almond oil, avocado oil or even olive oil and you will have a wonderful soothing, effective healing lotion — you just have to find the right hands to apply it.
Ginger has a well-deserved reputation for soothing digestion and relieving nausea but a lot of recent interest around it has been on the ways in which it reduces inflammation in your body. For instance, ginger restricts the actions of chemicals known as leukotrienes and prostagalandins, which promote inflammation. A substance named shogaol, from ginger, has additional analgesic effects as it stops the release of the pain-mediating compound substance P. Ginger also possesses antioxidant properties that equal those of vitamin C. So, if inflamed muscles or joints are hampering your exercise efforts, ginger may be your answer. You can take it in tablet or capsule form or you can make a ginger tea by cutting up fresh ginger root, putting it in a thermos, filling the thermos with boiling water and letting it stand for a few hours; the resultant brew is delicious and potent.
Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport had male cyclists complete a five-day “fatigue-inducing” cycle of exercises, four times each, with nine days rest between each cycle. The athletes used one of four recovery strategies after each day of exercise: immersion in 15ºC water for 14 minutes; immersion in 38 ºC water for 14 minutes; alternating between cool and hot water every minute for 14 minutes; or just 14 minutes of rest. The cyclists’ sprint and time trial performance was maintained or slightly improved with cool water immersion and contrast water therapy, but both declined with hot water dips or rest only. So for any endurance sports it does seem as though ice baths post-exercise will assist recovery and help prevent muscle damage.
If you are searching for a reason to justify getting a massage, here it is: therapeutic massage can speed recovery after a sports injury. One study from Ohio State University showed, by using Swedish massage on animals after they had exercised, that this is not simply a feel-good effect from being touched by another human. Swedish massage combines long strokes, kneading and friction techniques on muscles. Muscles in animals receiving massage had improved function, less swelling and fewer signs of inflammation than did muscles in the animals that received no massage treatment after exercise.
The massaged muscles recovered an estimated 60 per cent of the strength after the four-day trial, compared to restoration of about 14 per cent of strength in muscles that were exercised and then rested. Similarly, the massaged muscles had fewer damaged muscle fibres and virtually no sign of white blood cells, the presence of which would indicate the body was working to repair muscle damage, when compared with the rested muscles. The massaged muscles weighed about 8 per cent less than the rested muscles, suggesting the massage helped prevent swelling.
If a sore back is your problem after some vigorous exercise, yoga may well help. This was shown in a trial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Adults with lower back pain were randomly assigned to take either 12 weeks of yoga class or 12 weeks of a standard therapeutic exercise class, or to follow the advice of a self-care book. The yoga class was conducted by an experienced instructor and the class was limited to basic poses that would not put too much strain on the back.
After 12 weeks, the yoga practitioners reported better back function than either of the other two groups. At their final evaluation, those practising yoga were using less than half the amount of pain medication of the other groups. The healing power of yoga for sore backs may lie in its focus on co-ordinating movement with the breath and focusing the mind. It may also be that yoga allowed the back pain sufferers to become more aware of their habitual movements and postures that contributed to their back problems in the first place.