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Returning to ‘normal life’ after an injury

Injuries happen, it’s a part of normal life. Managing your recovery and getting back to work and pre-injury activities can be a slow and unnerving experience for some. When expectations and reality don’t match up, people can think something is wrong, and unnecessary fears and frustrations can set in. With a few tips and tricks up your sleeve, managing your injury and getting back to work and ‘normal life’ can be less stressful.

To help set realistic expectations and timeframes for returning to pre-injury activities and work, it is important to talk to the health professionals involved in your rehabilitation. Consider taking a prepared list of questions to the appointment to ensure you don’t miss asking anything. However, if you think of questions after your visit, contact your health professional’s office via telephone or email or make a further time to meet with them and discuss your questions and concerns.

Common misconceptions

Once a bone is healed and the cast is removed, I should be able to return to doing things the way I always have straight away. Right?

Once a fracture is considered stable enough to remove the cast, a lot of things can return to normal. However, the bone, and surrounding tissues, will need some time to regain full strength for certain activities. If you have a physically active job, you may need some guidance to know what tasks are safe for you to resume doing and when. This may involve asking your employer or ACC for support from a vocational rehabilitation consultant who are experienced in assisting people returning to work. If you have been in a cast for some time, you may have some joint stiffness and muscles weakness. This will take some time to improve with gradually increasing your movement and activity, and may require some targeted strengthening exercises under the guidance of a physiotherapist. Understanding that having a cast or splint removed is a part of the recovery process and not the ‘end-point’ of your healing following an injury, can help re-set your expectations and reduce frustrations you may have with not bouncing back to your normal physical activities straight away.

My doctor has said I can go back to work. Don’t they understand I’m not 100% better yet? It must be too soon?

Returning to work after an injury is an important milestone, and usually doesn’t need to happen once you have achieved a ‘full recovery’. For example, consider a sportsperson returning to playing sport after an injury. Part of their rehabilitation will involve a gradual reintroduction to playing the sport rather than only strengthening in the gym. However, it does mean, that aspect of your life can get back to normal quickly, even if there are other things that are still improving. We know that people tend to recover well if they can get back into their usual routines as soon as possible. Work is a part of that. If you have capacity to do some aspects of your job but not others, talk with your manager about doing those parts of your job while you are still recovering. The psychological, social and physical benefits of being at work far outweigh the alternative option of sitting at home waiting to recover.

My medical certificate says I’m ‘fully unfit for work’ for two months because of my leg injury. But my manager has offered me some desk based project work that I can do sitting down. Am I allowed?

Most likely, yes. A medical certificate will refer to your work capacity for your usual job. If your employer has suitable alternative options for you, that is great news. You can then discuss an updated medical certificate with your doctor in support of these alternative duties.

My doctor says I should be on ‘light duties’ however I don’t want to let my team down by not pulling my weight at work. Besides, don’t they say, ‘no pain, no gain’?

When we are injured it can be easy to focus on the ‘here and now’. Taking a few extra weeks or months to gradually increase your working hours and tasks is not the end of the world. It will likely lead to a smoother, more comfortable and sustainable recovery. Also, you may be surprised at how understanding your colleagues are. If not, speak with your manager who may need to help with educating the staff.

I started back at work but I was sore so I stopped. I don’t know what to do next.

Experiencing some increase in symptoms when returning to work follow a period off is not uncommon and does not necessarily mean anything is wrong, providing your return to work was appropriate. It is your body adjusting to something new or different and is like the soreness you feel after the first session back at the gym following a month off. However if you have concerns or your symptoms are more than “what would be expected” discuss this with your health professional and they can help you to problem solve ways to manage this.

We can compare returning to work after an injury to returning to running marathons following an injury. During time off recovering, you would expect the marathon runner to have reduced strength, fitness and endurance and therefore requiring a period of gradually increasing their distance and speed before running their next marathon. Sometimes the same can be said of work fitness. Depending on your injury and type of job, it may be sensible to gradually build up your hours at work (i.e. the distance run by the marathon runner) and/or by gradually increasing the amount physical work you are doing (i.e. the speed of running or adding in hills). Your brain and body may need time to re-adapt to working and re-build that working fitness again.

Understanding recovery from an injury is a process rather than an individual moment will enable you to put strategies in place that help you get back to your usual activities in a realistic timeframe with minimal frustration and disappointment. Life’s too short to sit around waiting to recover from injuries. Focus on doing what you can, while you can and your recovery rate should be as smooth as possible.