The Traffic Light Guide—A Better Approach To Pain Than “If It Hurts, Don’t Do It”

If you’ve ever been to the doctor for pain or an injury, you’ve likely heard the advice, “If it hurts, don’t do it” or, “just stop fill in the blank activity and take it easy”. And in your head you were probably thinking, “Yeah I could’ve figured that out myself without paying you an $80 co-pay”. It’s a bit of a cop-out answer, if you ask me.

If you’re anything like me, being told to just “stop running”, or “stop squatting” is just not a viable solution. Those are things I love to do, and simply avoiding doing the things you enjoy, whatever that is, is never a good long-term solution to pain and injuries. In fact, the primary goal of treating pain should be to return to whatever that specific thing is that you’ve been missing out on or avoiding because of your pain.

There are plenty of circumstances where certain activities should be temporarily avoided in order to facilitate the healing process. But there are other circumstances where that is not the case. But when we’re in pain, how the heck do we know the difference? How do we know if we’re making our injury worse, or if a little pain/discomfort during an activity is actually ok? It can get confusing and discouraging and make us want to just throw in the towel completely.

I think many of us have experienced some version of this. Maybe it hurts to squat, so we avoid that, but then does that also mean we should avoid deadlifting? What about lunges? Am I making it worse by running? I don’t want to only do upper body lifts. Sh*t, I’m going to lose all my quad gains. And it all gets so complex and overwhelming that we just avoid exercising altogether. And instead of going to the gym, we feel sorry for ourselves and opt to melt into the couch with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked and binge the latest season of Ozark. Things can spiral downward quickly.

But that’s where I come in. Let me introduce to you one of my favorite tools: The Traffic Light Guide to Movement*.

The Traffic Light Guide to Movement is a tool to help you self-assess your pain or injury and take control of your healing journey. It is designed to help you determine “good pain” vs. “bad pain” and “safe movements” vs. “unsafe movements” so you can continue to be active and be on your way to returning to doing the things you love. The big message here is that hurt does not always equal harm. Please feel free to reference this tool outlined below the next time you are experiencing pain during any specific movement or activity.

Quick disclaimer: pain is incredibly complex. At any given moment, there are likely multiple factors involved in a pain experience. The purpose of this tool is to serve as a general guide to identify the difference between hurt vs. harm and bring to light that, contrary to many peoples’ beliefs, sometimes pain with movement is actually safe.

Red Light – Injury

Pain behavior:

Severe spike in pain (7/10 or greater) during the activity that stops you from performing the activity any longer
Pain persists for several days to weeks after the activity
Major change or loss in range of motion, strength, and function
What this means: Avoid that activity and seek medical advice/treatment.

Yellow Light – Too Much Too Fast

Pain behavior:

Pain spikes during activity between 4-7 out of 10
Pain persists for a number of hours after the activity is stopped
No change in range of motion, strength, or function
What this means: Yellow light is “safe pain”, meaning you are not causing further harm by doing the activity. Stay the course with activity, but avoid new activities and avoid increasing weight/reps.

Green Light – Safe

Pain behavior:

Pain spikes during the activity between 4-7/10
Pain is no worse after activity and back to “normal” within a couple hours
No change in range of motion, strength, or function
What this means: This movement is safe! Be confident in adding more activity and gradually progressing.

To reiterate, this tool is a great starting point and can help you monitor your own injury or pain during movement. Seeking care from a professional is always recommended, especially one that has an understanding of your particular activity or sport and can get you back on track to returning to that activity as quickly as possible. My hope is that we can all be equipped with the tools and resources necessary to get on the right track, not if, but when, pain arises in our lives.

If you have questions or are battling an injury of your own, I’m here to help. Feel free to reach out via the contact tab, and let’s chat. And as always, thanks for reading, friends. 🙂

*I cannot take credit for this tool—it is the result of the brilliant work of the clinicians and researchers at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Chicago, IL. For more info please visit their website here.

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