The athlete in all of us

Monday, June 22, 2009

Baseball asks special skills of its players. The 162 game season stretches over 6 months with playing conditions ranging from stifling heat and humidity to freezing cold and snow flurries. On defense, the game requires the athletes to stand in the field for prolonged periods of time and then sprint aggressively without warning. Throwing produces forces that can damage tendons, muscles and ligaments, while batting is associated with major torque on the upper and low back. It is no wonder that in the first days of summer, with the season only a third complete, that players start to feel the wear and tear of the game they play.

Muscles are used to move the body. They attach to bone either directly or with a tendon and span across a joint. When a muscle contracts, a joint moves and activity happens. The movement of a muscle depends upon the coordinated sliding motion of many muscle fibers. To do extreme work, the muscle requires increased blood supply to provide oxygen, glucose and electrolytes to allow the individual muscles cells to do their job. And it’s important that the whole muscle be warmed up as well.

Think of the muscle as a spring. If the spring is cold, there will be little opportunity to stretch. If asked to aggressively stretch, the cold metal of the spring may break. If the spring is well used and is pulled far apart, it may not be able to return to its original shape and may loose the ability to recoil. Muscles work similarly.

A poorly warmed up muscle that is asked to do aggressive work, may not be able to respond. Muscle or tendon fibers may tear and be damaged. To protect itself, the muscle may go into spasm. This causes pain and the muscle may want to protect itself even further, going into more spasm. Treating the injury requires addressing both the pain and the spasm part of the equation.

Ideally, prevention is the best way of treating muscle strains. Warming up muscles is just as good an idea on the construction as it is on the baseball diamond. Stretching once the muscles are warm also works well and it may not be such a good idea to stretch cold muscles. But just as ball players are asked to use their muscles unexpectedly, injuries at work and home also happen when the body is asked to perform a task when it isn’t ready.

If a muscle is strained, treatment has a few basic cornerstones. Rest, ice and elevation will help decrease the inflammation that arises when muscle fibers are torn. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen will also help with pain control and sometimes a doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxant to ease the spasm.

Time is the important healer allowing the injured muscle to recuperate. Unfortunately, in this regard, life also mimics sports. The season is short and players want to get back into the game sooner than later and sometimes return too some. In the real world, people also want to get back to work quickly. Nobody wants to have their pocketbook hurt in addition to the pain of their injury. But time is what it takes for muscles to repair themselves. While it may be only a few days until the muscle can start working again, it may take weeks for the cells, fibers and whole muscle to return to the pre-injury form. The potential for re-injury in this time frame is greatly increased.
As the dog days of summer hit the baseball season, more players will go down with muscle tears in their arms, legs and backs. The athlete in all of us should learn from them and try to prepare our bodies for the tasks we ask them to do each day. Time invested in gentle warming up and stretching may keep us in the game for the whole season.

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