Playing Through Injury: Heroic or Crazy?


History is full of athletes playing through horrific injuries, even triumphing in the face of them. Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open with two stress fractures in his tibia and a knee that was so bad he wound up having surgery on it a week later. Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto broke his kneecap during the 1976 Olympics but pressed on to complete the rings anyway, helping his team win a gold medal even though his final landing dislocated the knee altogether. Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling underwent a crude surgery to stabilize a destroyed ankle so he could stand long enough to pitch the 6th game of the American League Championship Series — and won. But were these risky choices worth it? Or should each player have had physiotherapy and given his body the recuperation it so badly needed?


Playing through injuries is widely viewed as a sign of the fierce resolve of the athlete and as such is considered admirable. After all, it’s hard not to be impressed by what they can achieve even while in terrible pain. Yet, persevering in spite of injuries not only cripples the body in the present, but sets these players up for chronic issues down the road.


Orthopedic surgeon William Levine stresses that it’s never a good idea to continue playing through pain. An injury that is considered a grade-1 by a sports physiotherapist can easily escalate to a grade-2 or -3, increasing recovery time from mere days to upwards of three months. Worse, without prevention, simple problems, like sprains, can turn into very serious issues, like breaks or dislocations, which can take months to heal and can result in lifelong pain, weakness and complications. Anyone who follows golf is familiar with Tiger Woods’s now constant back and knee problems, which have kept him out of a game he loves for significant lengths of time and may prevent him from breaking the current world record, a goal that was once his dream.


Even more worrisome is the prevalence of young sports players pushing themselves through pain to continue supporting their teams. Continuing in the face of pain is part of the sports culture even in recreational sports, according to this article in Today Health and Wellness. These children have no real reason to risk hurting themselves by continuing to play, but are so conditioned by their coaches — many of whom are just volunteers and also have no real stake in winning — that playing through pain is a sign of team spirit that they feel obligated to do it.


In truth, it isn’t worth the stress on your body to play through pain. Listen to your body, visit a physiotherapist and give yourself time to heal. Doing so will ensure the prevention of unnecessary complications in the future.