In a collaborative effort with Scott over at Straight to the Bar, we we will be writing all about injuries for the month of November. You can expect a new article on the matter every week.
This week I would like to explore whether or not you should self-diagnose your injuries, or whether you should go to visit a doctor. The largest determining factor are going to be what resources are available to you, followed by the perceived severity of your injury.
There are many different resources that you may have available to you that will determine whether going to a doctor is even a viable option. Are there any competent sports physicians in your area, or are you going to have to go to a general practitioner? Do you have insurance, and would your visit be covered by your insurance? Can you afford the visit out of pocket? Do you have any sort of medical staff available in a different setting, such as an athletic trainer? Do you have a coach or experienced teammates that can offer you any advice? In my experience, a doctor that has studied sports medicine or an athletic trainer are both good options when available, but a general practitioner may not know enough to be more helpful than to recommend time off.
Money may not be very important in the scheme of things when you are trying to decide whether to get an injury looked at, but it can often be the difference between winging it and missing a few months of training or seeing somebody competent and missing only a few weeks. Of course, if there is nobody competent in your area, then you are going to have to spend not only a large amount of money but also a large amount of your time in travelling to somebody that can really help.
Once you know what resources are available to you, the next most important thing that you need to consider is how severe you perceive your injury to be. Be sure to note that what you perceive and how severe an injury actually is may have little correlation with one another. Experience will be your friend here, and if you have any coaches, teammates, or friends that have more experience than yourself then you would be wise to ask their opinion.
Sometimes you can tell that something is very severe, such as when you break a bone and a piece is sticking through your skin. Chances are pretty good that even if you are a physician yourself that you are going to need some competent help. Other times, you can tell that something really is not very serious, such as when you stub your toe and it stops hurting after 10 or 15 minutes. In those cases, you generally will know whether you need to go see a doctor or not.
The problem with sports injuries, especially non-contact sports such as running or weight lifting, is that you may not even notice the more severe problems while minor problems may seem like they really hurt. For example, an oncoming stress fracture might seem like a minor shin splint, and tendonitis may begin by feeling like a sore joint. If you do not adjust your training appropriately, then you may wind up having to sideline yourself for a season or more. Then again, if you do not properly cool down after a marathon or other really difficult workout then you may find yourself unable to move the next day. Realistically, even though you are in a lot of pain, there is not that much wrong with you and you will be fine within a day or 3.
The more that you exercise and the more that you compete competitively, the more that you will get to know your body. Once you have had a sports injury or three, you will start to notice a trend when you begin overtraining. If you keep accurate training logs and track your weight or your resting heart rate on a daily basis, then you will often be able to prevent the worst injuries in their early stages just by becoming familiar with your own body and its needs.
After considering your resources and trying to figure out how much pain you are in or are likely to be in if a change is not made, should you go to see a doctor or not? In general, I recommend going to the doctor if possible. In my experience, most recreational athletes are not comfortable enough with their bodies and do not have a frame of reference to accurately judge how serious an injury is.
That being said, I very rarely go to the doctor. Most of the times that I have, I have been disappointed with what they have to say. I have kept pretty accurate training logs for most of my adult life, and have had more than my share of injuries. I also know exactly how much pain I am willing to put up with, and how much training I need to do, in order to attain my goals.