Overexertion Definition, Signs and Symptoms, Prevention

Whether you’re a competitive athlete or have a job that requires you to be on the move, you’re likely familiar with hard work. Many occupations and hobbies require repetitive and continuous activities.

However, it’s possible to overdo it. This can be stressful on your body and mind — which can result in overexertion.

Overexerting yourself can lead to pain, discomfort, or even injury. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of your limits and listen to your body.

The good news is that it’s possible to protect yourself from overexertion. In this article, we’ll explore the causes and symptoms of overexertion, plus ways to avoid it.

When you push yourself too hard, it’s known as overexertion. This involves physical or mental effort that’s beyond your current abilities.

Overexertion depends on many factors, such as your:

  • age
  • medical history
  • environment or workplace
  • specific activity or task

Due to these factors, different people will become overexerted at different points. We all have our own physical and mental limits.

Overexertion can be unsafe. It can lead to serious injuries, like:

It may also limit your ability to keep doing an activity in the future.

Typically, overexertion is related to certain activities or motions. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common causes of overexertion.

Repetitive movements

When you repeatedly move a joint or muscle over a long period of time, it can lead to overexertion. The repetitive movements can put strain on your body, leading to pain or discomfort.

Repetitive movements are often associated with activities like:

  • using a computer mouse
  • typing or writing
  • working on an assembly line
  • kicking, hitting, or throwing a ball
  • training for sports
  • playing musical instruments
  • sewing or knitting

Improper technique

Overexertion may stem from doing an activity or task incorrectly. This can place stress on your muscles, bones, joints, and connective tissues and cause overexertion injuries.

Examples of improper technique include:

  • lifting items incorrectly
  • sitting with poor posture
  • standing in awkward positions
  • using the wrong form during exercise
  • not wearing knee pads while kneeling
  • using the wrong gear or equipment (like chairs without back support)

Sudden body movements

A sudden, forceful movement can also cause overexertion. This is more likely to happen if your technique is incorrect.

Abrupt movements that can lead to overexertion injuries include:

  • twisting
  • bending
  • pushing
  • pulling
  • throwing
  • reaching

Prolonged activity

If you continuously do an activity without regular breaks, you’ll eventually become fatigued. The excess physical effort can be hard on your body.

Prolonged activity might be related to:

  • overtraining for a sport or physical fitness
  • doing an activity or exercise too many days in a row or without sufficient breaks

Similarly, you can develop mental overexertion after focusing on a cognitive activity for an extended period of time. For instance, you may feel mentally burned out after many hours of studying or working.

Extreme temperatures

Another potential cause is doing an activity in extreme temperatures.

When it’s very hot or cold, your body needs to work extra hard to maintain its normal temperature. As a result, you may need to push yourself harder to do basic activities, resulting in overexertion.

Overexertion due to extreme temperatures is often associated with activities like outdoor manual labor and exercising outdoors.

If you’ve overexerted yourself, you may have the following signs and symptoms:

Pain

Pain is a common sign that you’re overexerting yourself. You may have pain that feels sharp or achy. It may also be more of a burning, tingling, throbbing, or pinching sensation.

If you have pain, stop the activity immediately. Rest and take a break. If the pain continues or get worse, talk with your doctor.

Overuse injury

An overuse injury, or a repetitive strain injury, typically develops slowly over time. Some examples of common overuse injuries include:

Common symptoms of overuse injuries include:

  • pain
  • tingling
  • numbness
  • stiffness
  • weakness in the affected area

It’s possible that you may only feel these symptoms when you’re doing a specific activity.

You’ll typically need to connect with a doctor, so they can help you treat this type of injury. Treatment for a repetitive strain injuries often involves:

  • RICE treatment, which stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation
  • securing the affected area with a splint or brace
  • steroid injections
  • medications to reduce inflammation and pain
  • exercises to strengthen the affected area
  • changing your technique and avoiding positions that overextend the affected area

Fatigue

Another common symptom is fatigue. It can be physical or mental, depending on the cause of overexertion.

Signs of physical fatigue can include:

  • “heavy” limbs, even when doing low intensity activities
  • persistent soreness
  • poor physical performance
  • slow recovery after training

Mental fatigue may cause symptoms such as:

In either case, avoid forcing yourself to work for extended periods of time.

Allow yourself to rest and focus on healthy lifestyle habits, like:

  • eating nutritious meals and snacks
  • doing gentle forms of exercise
  • staying hydrated
  • getting good quality sleep

Increased injuries or sickness

Overexertion makes it difficult for your body to heal after strenuous activities. Likewise, it can impair your immune system, making you more prone to sickness.

If you keep getting injured or sick, it may be time to take a mental or physical break from what you’ve been doing. Again, eating healthy and getting enough sleep can help your body recover.

Difficulty breathing

If you’re unable to breathe during a physical task, try reducing the intensity of the activity.

Avoid holding your breath, and breathe deeply to help your body and brain get the oxygen they need. Deep breathing can also help your body relax.

There are ways to avoid physical overexertion while working or doing physical activities.

Follow these tips to prevent physical burnout and injuries:

  • Stretch and warm up your muscles before doing an activity.
  • Take breaks every 30 minutes, especially if you usually stay in the same position for many hours.
  • Do exercises, like wrist exercises, to keep your joints healthy.
  • Learn the proper technique and form for the task or exercise you’re doing. Ask for help if you don’t know what the correct form is.
  • Lift heavy objects with your legs, not your back. Bend your knees before lifting any heavy items, and keep the items tucked close to your body.
  • Avoid overexercising and switch up your routine.
  • Try to include at least 1 day of rest per week in your fitness routine.
  • Don’t try to do too much too soon with physical activity. Slowly increase your activity duration, intensity, and frequency.
  • Rest after repetitive or strenuous activities.

If you feel mentally exhausted or overwhelmed from work, parenting, or daily stressors, you can take certain steps to help you cope. Some options include:

  • Try lightening your load. Look for ways to delegate tasks and responsibilities to others. Enlist the help of people who can help you with duties like childcare, running errands, or caring for loved ones.
  • Take a break. Schedule a vacation, long weekend, or just clear your calendar for a few hours to focus on doing something that brings you joy.
  • Exercise. A 2013 research review showed that exercise can be especially beneficial for stress management. It also has the ability to protect you against many stress-related health problems. Even a brisk 20-minute walk can lift your mood, make you feel more relaxed, and provide mental health benefits.
  • Try relaxation techniques. Find time in your day, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes, to try doing a technique that’s been proven to lower stress levels. Some options include meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Prioritize your sleep. Sleep is essential for mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Aim to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Using a journal to remind yourself of the many things that you’re thankful for can help you focus on the positive aspects of your life instead of the difficult things.
  • Look into medical treatment. A mental health professional or therapist can provide you with tools to help you cope with mental exhaustion and stress.

Overexertion is typically caused by repetitive movements, sudden motions, or prolonged effort. It may also be related to incorrect technique or working in extreme temperatures. If you’re overexerted, you may develop fatigue, pain, or become more prone to injuries.

Overexertion isn’t only physical. You can also overexert yourself mentally if you work too hard or feel overwhelmed by too many tasks and challenges.

It’s worth noting that overexertion doesn’t mean you’re weak or unable to do something. Instead, it’s a sign that your body or mind needs to rest. To avoid overexertion, take regular breaks, don’t overdo things, and pay attention to your body’s warning signs.

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