Longer daylight and summer hours at the office mean more time for running pre- and post-work. Unfortunately, it can also mean aches, pains and injuries, as we pound the pavement with renewed warm-weather enthusiasm. One of the most challenging parts of running is preventing wear and tear, says David Geier, MD, a sports medicine specialist based in Charleston, South Carolina. “It’s a sport that involves repetitive motion, so most of the injuries you see are from overuse,” he says.
But how do you know if what you’re feeling is normal soreness and discomfort, or if it’s really something to worry about? Dr. Geier gave us the low-down on the most common and problematic injuries he sees in runners, how to fix them yourself and when to get help (and no, that doesn’t mean from WebMD).
Possible diagnosis: Iliotibial band syndrome
Runners are notorious for having tight or inflamed iliotibial (IT) bands, the tendons that run down the thighs and along the outside of the knee. Icing and foam rolling after runs may help—but if it doesn’t get better after a few days of self-treatment, see a sports medicine doctor. He or she will likely direct you to a physical therapist, who can perform an ultrasound or electrical stimulation (both painless, non-invasive procedures) and prescribe you specific stretches and exercises.
Possible diagnosis: Patellofemoral pain syndrome
This overuse injury is more prevalent in women than men. If you’re feeling the same dull, achy pain just under the front of your kneecap (or both kneecaps)—especially when you run hills or take the stairs—this could be the culprit.
If it’s a relatively new pain, you may be able to prevent it from getting worse by icing after runs and backing off your normal mileage for a few days. But if it’s still bothering you after two to three weeks, head to a physical therapist (or a sports medicine doctor, if you need a referral) to learn some exercises you can do at home.
Possible diagnosis: Shin splints or stress fracture
Pain that’s diffused across the inside of the shin bone is most likely shin splits, an annoying but not-too-serious setback that almost all runners deal with at some point. Ice, rest and buying new shoes (if yours are worn out or not the right type) are usually the best cures, and there’s no need to see a doc if the pain doesn’t get worse or become localized.
If it does become localized—meaning if you can pinpoint the exact spot you’re hurting—get it checked out by a doctor ASAP. It may be a stress fracture, which could require wearing a medical boot and/or using crutches for six to eight weeks. Another warning sign of stress fractures: pain (in your shin or elsewhere in your foot or leg) that goes away on your off days but comes back on runs, and lingers for 15 to 30 minutes after your workout.
Possible diagnosis: Plantar fasciitis
This very common pain affects runners and non-runners, but it can be brought on or aggravated by a sudden increase in mileage or by wearing the wrong running shoes. It’s often most noticeable first thing in the morning or after you’ve been sitting all day, but it can also make running uncomfortable.
The good news is you can usually self-treat with foot and calf stretches, and icing after you work out. If it doesn’t go away on its own, your doctor may prescribe a splint to wear at night to help stretch out your plantar fascia, the tight muscle that runs across the bottom of your foot.
Possible diagnosis: Hamstring strain
Common in sports like soccer and football, this injury can happen because of quick movement changes—like sprinting to a hard finish at the end of a long run.
A minor strain will get better on its own after a few days (especially if you ice and stretch), but if it continues to bother you when you run or climb stairs, or if your thigh is visibly bruised, it’s smart to get professional help. A physical therapist can give you an exercise routine to heal and strengthen those muscles, and can manually work out some of the kinks with massage.
Possible diagnosis: Exertional compartment syndrome
This one is less common, but potentially more serious, than other running-related conditions Dr. Geier treats—and if you have it, you’ll know. When you run, your calves feel like a balloon that’s about to pop, and your feet feel numb or tingly.
This happens because for some runners, their muscles swell during exercise more than normal, putting too much pressure on the nerves and blood vessels in the lower leg and foot. Rest and physical therapy may help, but most people with this condition need minor surgery. The good news? You can be back to your regular running routine, pain free, in just a few months.