Sometimes the decision to go to the gym is crystal clear—like when you’re choosing between blowing off steam after work and hitting happy hour with the boss who’s been driving you crazy. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit more of a gray area. What if you’re down to head to spin but you have a weird twinge in your ankle that has been there for…you can’t remember how long? Then it’s not so cut and dry.
No need to be confused about what to do anymore. Put your Magic 8 Ball back in your nightstand drawer—we’ve got the top seven symptoms you should never ignore when planning to workout.
Muscle soreness is one thing, but any “sudden or sharp pains should not be ignored, as these tend to be joint or nerve related,” according to Hector L. Osoria, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation resident physician in Boston. “Painful popping or tearing, joint immobility (due to swelling, pain, and/or sudden weakness), pain shooting to the extremities or pain that gets worse through a workout are all signs that something more serious could be brewing and at the very least should warrant some time off. Pushing through these is more likely to cause injury progression and put people on the sidelines for longer than if they had taken the right steps to recovery or treatment.”
Yes, there are times where you may be feeling more “namastay in bed” than “namaste,” but if exhaustion is extreme, it could be a tip off that there’s a more serious problem. Extreme and lasting general fatigue and severe shortness of breath, particularly if it’s coupled with chest, jaw or arm pain, “could be indicative of a severe underlying illness,” says Bronwyn Spira, physical therapist and founder of FORCE Therapeutics, a platform designed to help accelerate a patient’s recovery from musculoskeletal injuries. “The body has limited ways of indicating systemic distress and it is very important to pay attention to these signs and symptoms and get them checked out by a qualified medical professional.”
To avoid causing a domino effect of body issues, make sure to immediately deal with any issues that affect posture or change your stride. “Symptoms that cause dysfunction of gait (limping) can often cascade into other musculoskeletal issues, so it’s worthwhile understanding the cause of gait anomalies and correcting them early,” Spira says. “If symptoms are ignored and structures are severely damaged as a result, it will take a lot longer to get back on the playing field/gym than if you rest and address the causative factors immediately. If rest does not improve your symptoms, it is advisable to have them evaluated by a medical professional.”
Long-lasting health problems
They say time heals all wounds, and when it comes to muscle soreness, that’s true. However, if your muscles are still tender many days after you worked out, it could be indicative of a larger problem. “Muscle soreness resulting from exercise, referred to as DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness], will always subside or reduce significantly 72 hours after a workout,” Spira says. “It is important to cease the provoking activity if you are concerned it is causing damage. If the pain is getting worse after this period of time, it might be worth going to see a doctor or physical therapist for an evaluation.”
According to Dr. Osoria, chest pain could be indicative of a much larger and more serious issue. “Chest pain (particularly if it radiates to the shoulders or jaw) can be a concerning symptom for heart disease,” he says. “If there is a problem with the heart, [your] other muscles can wait.” Do not go to the gym, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go to a doctor.
Dr. Osoria says, blurry vision is something that could mean a wide range of things, but it’s still something that should raise a red flag. “Dehydration, low blood sugar, severe hypertension, chronic diabetes, and many others can present with blurry vision,” he says. “It can be as simple to treat as rest and a bottle of water, or it might require long-term follow-up and medications.”
Loss of bladder/bowel control
An accident that isn’t related to a bout of food poisoning or a long race with no Porta Potties around isn’t just inconvenient, it could be a cause for concern. “Loss of bladder and bowel control and blurred vision should also always result in medical attention as they can be indicative of brain or spinal cord injury,” Spira says. If you experience any of the above, get thee to a doctor, stat.
At the end of the day, it’s key to know your body and listen to your instincts. “It helps to know and be honest about your own pain tolerance and physical abilities,” Dr. Osoria says. “Generally speaking, though, I would seek attention if my pain was: the worst pain I’ve ever felt, continuing to get worse with exercise, not resolving despite one to two weeks of rest, limiting some other major aspect of my life, or associated with any kind of bone or joint deformity or swelling.”
He continues, “Everyone should have a primary care physician they know and trust (or are in the process of getting to know and trust), because while this is all meant to be generally applicable, everyone is different.”