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Moving While in Pain: When to Push Through and When to Rest

June 21st, 2024 | 6 min. read

Moving While in Pain: When to Push Through and When to Rest
Franklin Staples

Franklin Staples

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

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If you’re dealing with pain, you might be unsure whether to keep moving or rest. Rest seems like the most comfortable option in some cases, and immediately after an injury, rest is essential for optimal recovery. However, appropriate gentle movement can actually help you heal faster and remain more active during the healing process. Understanding the role of movement in managing pain is crucial for your recovery and overall well-being. A physical therapist is often an essential member of your care team when approaching pain - we love helping our clients at EW Motion Therapy move safely and pain-free, whatever that looks like for them. While our physical therapy might not suit your needs, you can still read this article as we explore why movement can either alleviate or exacerbate pain, how to determine if you should move through pain, and how physical therapy can aid in recovery and pain reduction.


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The role of movement in managing pain

Movement is essential for maintaining healthy joints, muscles, and overall physical function. However, when you're in pain, the natural inclination might be to avoid movement altogether. Interestingly, the relationship between pain and movement is not as straightforward.


How movement can help pain

  1. Promotes blood flow: Gentle movement increases blood circulation, which helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to injured tissues, promoting healing.
  2. Reduces stiffness: Regular movement can prevent stiffness in joints and muscles, which often worsens pain.
  3. Releases endorphins: Physical activity triggers the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, which can help alleviate pain and improve mood.
  4. Improves mobility and strength: Appropriate exercises can strengthen the muscles supporting the affected area, enhancing stability and reducing strain on injured tissues.


How movement can exacerbate pain

  1. Aggravating injury: Moving too much or engaging in the wrong activity can worsen an existing injury, leading to increased pain and prolonged recovery.
  2. Inflammation: Excessive or improper movement can cause inflammation, exacerbating pain and discomfort.
  3. Compensatory movements: To avoid pain, you might adopt compensatory movements that place undue stress on other body parts, potentially leading to additional injuries.


Determining whether to move through pain

Deciding whether to move through pain requires careful consideration of the nature and intensity of your discomfort. Here are some guidelines to help you make an informed decision:


Types of pain

  1. Acute pain: This type of pain is usually sharp and sudden and often results from an injury. If you experience acute pain, it's essential to rest and seek medical attention before resuming any physical activity.
  2. Chronic pain: Chronic pain can occur without a clear mechanism of injury and persists over a long period. In many cases, it can be more challenging to manage. Movement can benefit chronic pain but should be approached cautiously and under professional guidance.


Pain intensity and duration

  1. Mild to moderate pain: If the pain is mild to moderate and subsides shortly after beginning an activity, it might be safe to continue. However, monitor the pain closely and stop if it worsens.
  2. Severe pain: If the pain is severe, persistent, or increases with movement, it's crucial to stop and consult a healthcare professional. Continuing to move through severe pain can cause further injury.


Pain location and cause

  1. Localized pain: Pain localized to a specific area might indicate a particular injury that needs rest and targeted treatment.
  2. Diffuse pain: Pain that is widespread or affects multiple areas can result from systemic conditions or overuse, or there can be no apparent cause. Identifying the underlying cause is essential before deciding on an appropriate activity level. 


How physical therapy can help

Physical therapy plays a vital role in managing pain and aiding recovery. A licensed physical therapist can develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to your needs and condition. Here’s how physical therapy can help:


Assessment and diagnosis

Physical therapists assess and diagnose various musculoskeletal conditions. They can identify the root cause of your pain and observe which movement patterns become more complex with the pain. With this information and your medical history, they can determine the most effective treatment approach to reduce pain while promoting healthy movement.


Customized exercise programs

Physical therapists create customized exercise programs that target specific areas of pain and weakness. These programs improve strength, flexibility, and mobility while minimizing the risk of further injury.


  1. Strengthening exercises: Strengthening exercises help build the muscles that support and stabilize the affected area, reducing strain and preventing future injuries.
  2. Stretching and flexibility exercises: Stretching exercises enhance flexibility and range of motion, alleviating stiffness and improving overall function.
  3. Low-impact aerobic exercises: Low-impact activities, such as swimming or cycling, can improve cardiovascular health without placing excessive stress on joints.


Manual therapy

Manual therapy techniques, such as massage, joint mobilization, and myofascial release, can help reduce pain and improve tissue function. These hands-on treatments can alleviate muscle tension, enhance circulation, and promote relaxation. Getting the blood flowing is crucial to recovery as your blood carries the healing properties that lay down the appropriate tissue and restore normal function.


Pain management techniques

Physical therapists employ various pain management techniques to help you cope with discomfort. These may include:


  1. Heat and cold therapy: Applying heat or cold to the affected area can reduce inflammation, improve blood flow, and relieve pain.
  2. Electrical stimulation: Techniques like TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) can interrupt pain signals and provide relief. Paired with dry needling, electrical stimulation can help release trigger points and retrain dysfunctional muscle tissue.
  3. Education and self-management strategies: Physical therapists educate patients on pain management strategies, posture correction, and ergonomic adjustments to minimize pain during daily activities.


Understanding when to move and rest while in pain is crucial for effective recovery and overall well-being. Getting a person moving appropriately will help not only their musculoskeletal pain but also their cardiovascular, respiratory, and mental health. However, it’s essential to approach movement cautiously, especially when dealing with acute or severe pain. If you're experiencing pain and are unsure whether to move or rest, consult a healthcare professional or a licensed physical therapist. They can guide you in making informed decisions and developing a treatment plan tailored to your needs, helping you achieve optimal recovery and pain relief.


Physical therapy offers a comprehensive approach to pain management and recovery, providing personalized treatment plans, targeted exercises, manual therapy, and pain management techniques. By working with a physical therapist, you can safely navigate the complexities of pain and regain your ability to move comfortably and confidently. Pain-free movement is our ultimate goal for all our clients at EW Motion Therapy, and we consider it a privilege to help you move, feel, and live better. To learn more about what physical therapy might cost you, click the button below to download our free pricing guide.


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