Pain is often caused by an inflammatory process of some type causing an irritation in a tissue like a bone, muscle, tendon, or ligament. When seeing a PT, you’re usually assigned exercises to address your goals. Typically these goals are oriented around reducing inflammation and optimizing movement function. But exercises aren’t the only thing that can assist with achieving your goals. Your mindset, general lifestyle habits and movement patterns, as well your food and supplement choices can contribute to how your body responds to inflammation and pain. There are many simple things you can do in addition to assigned exercises to help you get better faster. Many of these things can help regardless of your goals (or even if you’re not in physical therapy) to promote a healthy body.
1. Sleep like it’s your job. Go to bed so you can get 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Sleep is where your body recovers and resets itself. It’s a big part of how your body heals. If your sleep is interrupted, addressing the cause of disruption and fixing it so you can get uninterrupted sleep is imperative to reducing tissue inflammation. Simple sleep hygiene including avoiding phone and TV or screen use 2 hours before bed or using blue light glasses can help establish a normalized circadian rhythm. Additionally, avoiding caffeine after 2pm is another way to help you fall asleep faster. If other things such as pain are keeping you from sleeping, bring them up with your MD or PT to see if they can help. Perhaps pain medication or an injection may help alleviate the symptoms that disrupt your sleep. You may need to adjust the room you're sleeping in to avoid disturbances that can wake you up or even modify the amount of liquid you consume before bed. Other considerations may include modifying your mattress or pillow so it is more supportive or hypoallergenic.
2. Limit sugar intake. Sugar is inflammatory. Any pain or disease process is caused largely by inflammation. When your blood sugar spikes, it suppresses the immune system which thereby makes way for any disease or inflammatory process to grow. The obvious thing to avoid is eating or drinking anything with refined or added sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) in it as this will definitely contribute to blood sugar spikes. Diets high in carbohydrates may also be contributing to higher inflammatory blood sugar levels. Continuous glucose monitors are now available to the general public even if you’re not diabetic. Trialing one of these may give you a good idea of how your blood sugar fluctuates with your diet.
3. Eat enough protein. The US dietary guideline RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight. The optimal amount is based on the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for protein consumption. This number recommends protein consumption between 10 and 35 percent of caloric intake. Therefore, if the USDA recommends a 2,000 calorie per day diet for active women and 2600 calories per day for active men. A conservative 20 percent of calories from protein, the “reference” woman (125 lbs) would need 100 grams per day. So at least 30 grams of protein from each meal. What does that look like? For animal sources, this looks like four to six ounces of meat per meal, three times per day. Protein can come from other sources including plant and animal sources, but there are things called antinutrients in plants that prevent nutrient absorption in humans. Some people can digest and absorb plant sources better than others. Typically when eating plant sources of protein, you have to consume larger quantities than animal sources to achieve the same amount of protein. For example, one egg is about 6 grams of protein, ¼ cup of cooked chickpeas is about 4 grams of protein, and 4 ounces of sirloin steak gives you about 30 grams of protein, ¼ cup of tofu is about 7 grams of protein, and 0.5 oz almonds is 6 grams of protein. So are you getting enough? Protein contains amino acids which are the building blocks of our tissue. How would one expect a pulled muscle to heal or connective tissue like muscle, ligaments and tendons or bone to get stronger without ample amounts of protein to fuel that process? Typically if someone is continuously getting re-injured, I would ask first about protein consumption before I even look at movement.
4. Use food as medicine. You can walk through the grocery store or local farmers market and buy foods rich in vitamins and minerals that will feed your body and make your connective tissue and muscles strong. Magnesium, Iron, vitamin D, Omega 3 fats, Potassium, B12, and Zinc are all common nutrient deficiencies in the US and can be very easily prevented if we reduce the amount of empty calories consumed through processed foods and instead, make sure we look at the grocery store and each meal as a way to eat the nutrients our body thrives on. Our bodies absorb nutrients from real food sources much better than manufactured supplements or processed enriched foods.
5. Improve your mental health for better physical health. The word health is defined as being whole. You cannot separate mental and physical health, they affect one another and are so connected that it is impossible to be deficient in one without an affect on the other. There are many proven ways that you can improve your mental state by practicing simple things each day. This can, in turn release seratonin and dopamine which can then lead to improved physical health. Stress management, building and maintaining relationships with others, reading more rather than watching TV, and practicing thankfulness among other things are some ways to improve mental health and therefore affect physical health positively. Learning how to practice happiness and remove things from your life that make you unhappy plays an important role in improving health.
As you can see, exercises and stretches are only part of the prescription to alleviate pain and help people achieve their goals in physical therapy. So if you aren’t making progress in PT, take a look at this list and see if there’s something you’re missing.
Chatterjee, Rangan. Happy Mind, Happy Life: The New Science of Mental Well-Being. BenBella Books, 2022.
Rodgers, Diana, and Robb Wolf. Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat: Why Well-Raised Meat Is Good for You and Good for the Planet. Reprint, BenBella Books, 2021.
Inchauspe, Jessie. Glucose Revolution: The Life-Changing Power of Balancing Your Blood Sugar. Simon and Schuster, 2022.
“Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.” Make Every Bite Count With the Dietary Guidelines, Ninth Edition, USDA, 2020, dietaryguidelines.gov.
Md, Hyman Mark. Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our Planet--One Bite at a Time. Illustrated, Little, Brown Spark, 2020.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.