‘I thought I’d wait and see if it sorted itself out, but it’s been 6 weeks now and it still hasn’t gone away.’ It’s so easy to say, and seems like such good sense: no point in treating something that is going to fix itself anyway. And so it is – up to a point, but where is that point?
Our bodies are very good at adapting to cover for things that aren’t working properly. We develop slightly different ways of doing things – we may walk slightly differently or hold our head at a slight angle… The list of possible compensations is endless, and our bodies use these tricks to help cope with an injury, so compensation is a valuable and useful ability for our bodies to have.
If an adaptive behaviour continues for more than about 6 weeks, that compensation pattern starts to become ingrained. Our body gets used to that pattern and starts to use it as the new ‘normal’. So if the original cause of the adaptive behaviour (the original injury) now gets fixed, the body doesn’t go back to working normally. It has developed a new ‘normal’ – the compensation pattern. This compensation pattern was useful for relieving stress on the injury, but it will, inevitably, place additional stresses on other areas. In time, these additional stresses are liable to to cause injuries to the areas taking the load of the compensation.
To get the body working properly again it is going to need a process of rehabilitation. It has to unlearn the compensation pattern and re-learn the correct pattern of movement. This is the difference between an acute injury and a chronic one. Once an acute injury is resolved, the body will return to a normal pattern of movement. A chronic injury, on the other hand, leaves the body with an ingrained, abnormal pattern of movement that is liable to cause additional problems elsewhere as other parts of the body try to adapt to the compensation pattern.
So, how long should you wait before seeking treatment?
Most minor, self-resolving complaints will get better within 3 days. Anything that has been going on for more than 3 days is worth investigating – it could certainly do with a helping hand to get it on its way back to health, and it would be wise to make an assessment and decide on a treatment plan. Certainly don’t ‘go away and come back in 6 weeks if it hasn’t cleared up’; by then it will have become chronic and that is going to take a lot more treatment (and money) to get your body back to health.