By Christie Aschwanden
The only thing more demoralizing than a running injury is spending time and money to have the problem checked by someone who tells you to pop an ibuprofen and stop running. You can avoid this frustration by finding a health-care provider who's experienced in sports medicine, says Mark Tarnopolsky, Ph.D., M.D., a runner and a physician-researcher at McMaster University Medical Center in Ontario.
Running is a complex activity, and to properly diagnose and treat a running injury, you need someone who is trained to recognize the source of your issue. "Most injuries are due to something readily identifiable—you ramp up training too fast or you get a new pair of shoes that alter your stride," Tarnopolsky says. "You want someone to get to the root of the problem, instead of masking it with an anti-inflammatory and rest."
Here's how to find a provider who'll get you—and keep you—up and running. Depending on where you live and what insurance you have, you may need a referral to see a specialist, so check before making an appointment.
MAKE THE CALL: SPORTS-MEDICINE DOCTOR
Physicians with added training in sports medicine are often the best place to start, especially for a new problem. "We can quarterback your care," says John Martinez, M.D., a sports-medicine physician in San Diego. "We may not have all the treatments, but we can help you move through the morass of choices." Sports docs can give you a compre hensive evaluation that includes diagnostic tests, from blood counts to bone scans to MRIs. They'll help you resolve medical issues, such as vitamin deficiencies or exercise-induced asthma, and may refer you to a specialist to rehab injuries like plantar fasciitis or runner's knee.
BEST FOR: Mystery ailments, fatigue, and health issues affecting your running
NOT FOR: Therapy for an already-diagnosed muscle or joint injury
MAKE THE CALL: ORTHOPEDIST
Orthopedists are trained to treat issues affecting the body's bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which makes them a smart choice if you have an ongoing ache or pain that acts up during or after a run, says Angela Smith, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Ideally, you'd see an orthopedist with a sports-medicine specialization who works with athletes to prevent and manage injury. While orthopedists often perform surgery, look for one who is rehabilitation-oriented and operates as a last resort. An orthopedist may oversee your rehab or coordinate that treatment with a physical therapist.
BEST FOR: All types of running injuries—muscle strains and pulls, joint pains and sprains, stress fractures
NOT FOR: General health problems (fatigue, anemia, etc.)
MAKE THE CALL: PODIATRIST
Although podiatrists spend four years of training specializing in feet, their expertise extends beyond the metatarsals. During an exam, they'll check the wear patterns of your running shoes and watch you walk and run to look for biomechanical issues that could be contributing to your injury, says Amol Saxena, a sports podiatrist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Sports podiatrists may recommend a shoe insert or prescribe custommade orthotics, and may also provide strengthening and stretching exercises to resolve issues like plantar fasciitis.
BEST FOR: Foot and ankle-related problems; chronic injuries that often result from poor foot mechanics (runner's knee, iliotibial-band syndrome)
NOT FOR: Acute nonfoot injuries
MAKE THE CALL: PHYSICAL THERAPIST
"PTs are trained to watch people move and figure out what's going wrong," says Ellora Weston, a triathlete and doctor of physical therapy in San Francisco. "Is it a muscle? A tendon? We can sort it out." A good PT will spend up to an hour on your initial evaluation. Often, physical therapists work with physicians and orthopedists to diagnose problems, and they really shine when it comes to devising rehab programs and prescribing exercises to keep you injury-free.
BEST FOR: Rehabbing known injuries, both acute and chronic
NOT FOR: General health problems (fatigue, anemia, etc.) or if you suspect you have a fracture
MAKE THE CALL: CHIROPRACTOR
Because the medical establishment hasn't always been accepting of this profession, you may be wary of chiropractic care. But chiropractors are a valuable part of the medical team for some runners—including elite marathoner Meb Keflezighi. Sports-trained chiropractors take a head-to-toe approach with patients, says Jeremy Rodgers, a runner and doctor of chiropractic at the Colorado Sports Chiropractic Center. Most will watch you walk or run to identify risk areas that can lead to injuries. Then they'll press on or around joints, which can alleviate pain and strain on surrounding muscles and joints. Some practitioners also recommend stretches and strengthening exercises to correct gait imbalances.
BEST FOR: Back pain; injuries that may not be responding to other methods
NOT FOR: Traumatic injuries like fractures or torn ligaments
Ask the Doc:A runner's checklist for determining whether your physician is the best person to treat your running-related injury
YES/NO DO YOU HAVE A SPECIALTY IN SPORTS MEDICINE?
You should look for someone who has done a sports-medicine fellowship or other formal sports-related training in their discipline.
YES/NO: DO YOU RUN?
While it's not necessary, it definitely helps. At the very least, the doctor should have experience getting runners back out on the roads again. Even better, ask the doctor for a reference from another runner.
YES/NO: WHAT SHOULD I BRING TO THE APPOINTMENT?
The answer should include your training log and running shoes.
YES/NO: HOW MUCH TIME WILL YOU SPEND WITH ME?
Expect at least a 30-minute visit.
YES/NO: WILL YOU REFER ME TO A SPECIALIST IF NECESSARY?
Good providers recognize the limits of their expertise and aren't afraid to send you to a colleague for additional tests.