The old saying is that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” While we won’t argue the health benefits of apples (they’re awesome!), modern science tells us it’s also good to check in with a doctor for what ails you.
So should you set regular appointments, or only go as needed? We get some advice from Novant Health Family and Sports Medicine specialist Dr. Keith Anderson. Dr. Anderson is an avid runner and triathlete, who is also Medical Director for the Novant Health Charlotte Marathon, and has served on medical teams for the Kona Ironman World Championships, Olympics, and many other world-class events. He understands athletes’ aches and pains, and gives these pointers to help runners understand when you should see a doctor.
This is the central hub from which all medical questions should radiate. Do you have a primary care physician? If not, get one ASAP! Most insurance plans will cover an annual check-up, and your primary care physician can bring up red flags you’re not even aware of. It’s a good time to ask about other health issues, too, which can help you avoid seeing a specialist if you don’t need to. Dr. Anderson gives us a few examples.
If you often run in the sun, every mole suddenly seems suspicious, especially if you grew up in an age before sunscreen was considered essential. (Raise your hand if you ever sunbathed using tanning lotion or baby oil, or –gasp—nothing!) Dermatologists are specially-trained to check out suspicious moles, but they may not need to be your first stop.
“If you have a primary care physician and a good relationship, and see them yearly, and they can do your skin exam, then ask them to do it,” says Dr. Anderson. Your PCP will guide you if he or she sees something that concerns them, but you should consider your skin type and health history, too. “If you’re someone with a lot of freckles or a history of sunburns, you might want to see a dermatologist.”
Longtime runners have likely all felt that persistent pain in the foot, ankle, or knee, and wondered if it could be something really wrong. Is it? The answer reminds us of an old joke:
Patient: “Doc, it hurts when I do >this<.”
Doctor: “Then don’t do that!”
An oldie but a goodie, and also timeless advice — at least in the short-term.
“If you can figure out what the cause is, and back off on that activity, and that gets results, you don’t need a doctor’s visit for that,” says Dr. Anderson. Think back to when that part of you started hurting and what you may have been doing to cause it. A day of gardening? Hiking a more challenging trail? Carrying your toddler all day at the zoo? Then a day of rest may be good for the soul — and the joints.
“But if you have an ongoing pain that’s not improving, or stopping you from doing your daily activities, or persists or worsens during a run,” says Dr. Anderson, “that’s when you need to see a doctor.” Sometimes pains will pop up when you get started and then disappear after a few minutes. You don’t need to see a doctor for that, says Dr. Anderson — you just need some strength work.
On the other hand, “If you’re limping or changing the way you run, definitely go see your doctor,” he advises. You may not even need an orthopedist — a sports medicine specialist can provide insight here, too.
Physical Therapist or Chiropractor
A healthy back and core are essential to pain-free living, and a lot of runners and athletes have found regular adjustments to be just what they need for heavy training. But we asked Dr. Anderson, do you need to sign up for regular visits? The answer is, “that depends.” Such visits can have value, says Dr. Anderson, but not every runner needs to routinely see a chiropractor or physical therapist.
“If you are having an ache or pain that doesn’t require a visit to your primary care doctor, a physical therapist or chiropractor might be practical,” says Dr. Anderson. Either provider can assist with adjustments, or show you stretches and exercises to improve imbalances to bring your body back into alignment. Often, after just a few visits, you can be back on track with your training.
“But If you have persistent back pain, getting checked out to see if there isn’t something else going on is a good idea,” suggests Dr. Anderson. “Sometimes back pain can be a sign of something bigger, like cancer or a urinary tract infection.” Again, if this is the case, talk to your primary care doctor and listen to what he or she advises. And don’t be afraid to get a second opinion if you’re not satisfied with the answer.
Spring and Fall are a great time to run, but for some people, it leads to allergic misery. We covered this topic on our RunCharlotte Guide before (check here and here), but here’s a recap: Try an over-the-counter allergy relief medicine that works for you first, and if it doesn’t relieve your misery after some adjustments, check with your PCP or an Allergist.
“A lot of people don’t need regular visits, just seasonal meds,” concurs Dr. Anderson. “But if it’s not getting better, then an allergist is recommended for testing and treatment of specific allergens.”
Let’s face it; the last place any runner wants to be is in the doctor’s office. But if your aches and pains are persistent enough that they affect your run, cut it short, make you change your gait, etc., it’s time to make the call. If you wait too long, you may do lasting damage or miss an important warning sign of a larger, more serious condition.