How to Accelerate Healing Through The 5 Stages of An Injury

– Unite Founder Gavin McKay

If you’re human then you’ve been injured at some point in your life. We’ve all experienced the same thread of thoughts and emotions that rise from being injured. Interestingly, it tends to follow the same logical/illogical pattern as how we deal with any loss: the 5 Stages of Grief/Loss.

My goal is to raise awareness of how we tend to NOT deal directly with the injury and not only get through the 5 stages faster, but actually accelerate the healing itself. As the founder of Unite Fitness studios, I’ve seen this play out time and time again with our clients and I fared no better with my own shoulder injury. It’s time to change our mindsets and approach to injury and healing.

Let’s start with understanding the 5 stages of an injury. Most of these will sound painfully familiar.


The 5 Stages of an Injury:

Stage 1: Denial
“I might have done something to my shoulder, but it’s not that bad. I still have full range of motion, it just gets really sore afterwards, so I’m gonna keep going.”

These are the types of uncertain, passive phrases we use when we first feel pain. It’s really just plain denial. With my shoulder injury, I went for a period of a several weeks in denial, continuing my normal training regimen and tried to just “push through” pain and weakness. I was not ready to face what my body innately knew: My shoulder was definitely injured. I continued the same exercises and heavier weight . Bad move. I should not have been doing that.

Instead I should have been focused on not injuring it more, supporting healing and finding ways to rehab. But like many clients I’ve observed over the years, I too fell into stage 1 of an injury: denial. Even when it’s a reoccurring trouble area like my shoulder was.

Oh, the time we waste and the damage we do being stubborn.


Stage 2: Anger
“Errrrr, damn it this freaking shoulder again!”

The anger is a simple human response to feeling pain and being inconvenienced. Anyone who has even stubbed a toe can relate. We feel this new piercing pain and our knee-jerk reaction is to throw it back at the world.

I’ve learned that anger is really just a confused, aggressive and rarely effective cry for help. But we need to experience it. How we express it and how long we stay with it is our choice.

In stage 2 we can no longer deny that we’re hurt. Yes, we still don’t want to deal with the pain, time off from our exercise routine and extra work/cost/issues that come with an injury. We internally fight the reality of our situation. Then we get pissed.

It’s a juvenile and pointless reaction, but I probably wasted another couple of weeks being angry at the world for delivering me this burden. Anger is really a flash emotion and always subsides. It only lasts if we stupidly hold onto it and recreate it in our mind. By not treating the injury or modifying our training, we keep feeling the pain, which triggers anger and around we go.


Stage 3: Depression
“I can’t really do anything because of my shoulder.” “I just feel so weak. This sucks”

This is when we start letting our injury get the best of us. I curtailed working out completely and let the fact that I couldn’t do everything destroy my motivation to do anything. I tried to self-diagnose and go back to some physical therapy type movements from past injuries, but even that was a weak attempt at rehab.

The two main symptoms of injury depression are:

  1. Making excuses/complaining
  2. Not doing anything

It’s like we’re frozen in apathy. Stage 3 is a pity party. Pure and simple. And it can last for months if we let it.

This is where training with a support team and having a coach is so critical. We need well-trained professionals and positive, caring people around us to push us to go do something about it.

Another great reason to be in a training program and not go it alone at a gym. I’ve been inspired by clients who continue to come to our group training throughout an injury by modifying the workouts so as to not do damage but, in fact, work therapy into their routine. If the shoulder is an issue, our legs and abs still work and need the exercise to keep us healthy, energized and in the habit.


Stage 4: Acceptance/Getting Help
This is not getting better. Who should I go see?

Acceptance is where we need to be emotionally to build up our energy for rehab. Often times we can go months before we are finally so sick of hearing our own complaining and feeling the pain that we get help.

Acceptance is saying you are hurt and getting professional help. The faster we do this, the faster we can heal and get back to full training. Ask your community for referrals and get to an experienced doctor or therapist.


Stage 5: Recovery/Rehab
“I’m doing my therapy and it’s getting better each week.”

Healing and rehabbing can be fast or slow,  but there is peace in knowing that you are on the path to recovery. Often we need to pull back on some things and insert therapy exercises and techniques to help correct muscle imbalances that have developed,  because of the way our bodies compensated while injured. The majority of my shoulder pain and issues were actually from the strain of the muscle imbalances and not the actual causal condition. If we don’t delay diagnosis and treatment then these imbalances won’t develop into bigger problems, which can dramatically reduce the time needed to heal and rehab.

Alright, so those are the 5 stages of an injury. Did you take one of those detours at stage 2 or stage 3 at some point? Well, next time you feel an injury get through those stages and get to healing – faster by following these 3 strategies.


3 Strategies for Accelerated Healing:

1. Compress Denial, Anger and Depression Down to 2 to 3 Weeks

If it doesn’t get better in two weeks, it’s not going to. You are injured. Plus, it’s going to have other negative impacts because the muscles in our bodies are so connected.

We compensate, develop hard scar tissue and mess up our body mechanics and alignment even more each day we wait. Use this as logical motivation to get out in front of those follow-on injures and set your mind to deal with the original injury knowing you’ll have to modify training. This is mindfulness of the stages, your emotions and remembering the faster you deal, the faster you are healthy again. It’s your long-term functionality that really matters, not a few months in rehab.


2. Get a Professional Diagnosis ASAP 

You think you know what’s going on with your injury, but half the time you don’t. In the mean time you are confused, treating it wrong and wasting time from starting the right healing process. Sometimes we think we’re addressing the issue, but we still cut corners to save money and time. In the U.S., not everyone has healthcare and treatment can be expensive. The cost alone is a big deterrent, so we need to force ourselves to suck it up and invest in our health. If you have good insurance you need to feel blessed and go use it right away, not nine months later.

Personally, I went years before my shoulder got bad enough to finally go to the actual sports doctor. I never had particularly strong shoulders and so I went on a mission to fix it and decided to hit the big barbell movements and weights hard in a popular program I will not mention, but you can probably guess it.

Twice, over two years’ time, I started to feel pain and weakness in my shoulder. I did eventually stop the heavy weight training that caused it and went to physical therapy. Twice I was able to get rid of the pain and get function back, but there was an underlying arthritis issue brewing that I was unaware of because I didn’t want to dig deeper, pay for an MRI and risk having to get surgery.

I was optimizing my decisions and treatment to avoid surgery in the short term instead of focusing on long-term healing and functionality. What I did was set myself up for a labrum tear that may never fully heal because that area of the shoulder doesn’t get blood flow. Sort of like a plant that doesn’t get water, blood is the liquid life force of our bodies. Ironic that I got hurt trying to strengthen a weakness because the approach I took was wrong for the underlying issue at work.

Professional diagnosis would have avoided this. Has this ever happened to you? Time to call the doctor.


3. Create the Conditions for Healing

Our bodies are capable of astonishing healing and regeneration. From simple cuts to brain trauma, our bodies and minds are magical in their automatic, natural abilities to regenerate and find new pathways to continue to function.

We also know that our immune system gets suppressed when it’s put under stress. That stress includes: chemical, physical exertion and mental stress. With this as our view then it would make sense that putting the body and mind in a state of health, relaxation and stimulation will accelerate the healing.

So how do we create this state of healing?

  • Eat High Nutrient Density, Low Inflammation Foods:
    This likely includes supplementation of known anti-inflammatories like curcumin, fish oil and antioxidant rich vegetables. It also means avoiding foods that have no nutrients and are known to cause inflammation, like processed foods, breads and sugars. Do not underestimate your diet’s impact on everything, including your mood, which impacts your motivation to train and you biological ability to heal. Good in, good out.
  • Reduce Physical and Mental Stress:
    Do not over stress your injury area or your body and mind in general. This means laying off high intensity training, curbing marathon training and cutting back on your life load in general. What you might insert is learning to meditate a few minutes a day, massage, playing music or lighting candles to help get you into the relaxation state.
  • Stimulate Your Systems and Soul:
    In reducing stress you don’t want to stop all movement as blood, lymph and energy flow is important for healing. This means raising your spirits as well. It’s becoming scientifically known that patients with a good attitude, support community and activity heal better and live longer. So keep those things in your life that bring you joy and get the blood flowing. Cook, socialize, walk the dog, whatever makes you happy. I find moderate yoga is a wonderfully balanced program to put mind and body in a stimulated but relaxed state for healing.