How Does Exercise Help Injuries Heal? Put some muscle into it.

If you’ve ever been to a physical therapist, you know that exercise is usually prescribed as the primary treatment for a number of injuries and conditions. Clearly exercise has numerous benefits, but it can sometimes seem counterintuitive to place resistance or load through an injured area — doesn’t it need time to rest and heal? The short answer to that question is generally yes, especially immediately following the injury; however, the appropriate amount of movement and exercise can actually promote healing and recovery.

My goal is to help you understand just how exercise helps restore normal functioning of injured body tissues. This article is part of a series that will discuss how various types of tissue depend on movement to recover. Today’s subject is muscle.

Muscle injuries are quite common. A “pulled” muscle occurs when a force strains the muscle fibers beyond their limits, resulting in tears that can range in size from very small to large. A common example of this in the sports world is a strain of the large muscles on the back of the thigh: the hamstrings. Muscle strains usually recover in a matter of weeks, though can take longer depending on severity.

So how does movement help? After the acute stage of the injury passes, generally within 5-7 days, a return to minimally painful movement helps stimulate the building of new proteins which repair the damaged areas. Movement also helps push inflammatory enzymes, many of which can cause our nerves to become more sensitive, out of the affected area while bringing a fresh supply of blood — and with it much-needed oxygen and nutrients — to the healing tissues. Lastly, moving a muscle is critical to maintaining its range of motion and preventing increased stiffness or motion loss. As more movement is tolerated, exercises should be progressed to continue facilitating the healing process, eventually allowing restoration of strength that matches or exceeds the pre-injured state.

Look out for the next article in the series about how cartilage responds to movement.

Written by: Dr. Scott Newberry