Do you want the quick, short answer? Yes. Absolutely, you should exercise when you are in pain. What varies greatly is what kind of exercise you should be doing when you are in physical pain. Let’s explore this topic a little deeper.
As a physical therapist, I want to keep people active, especially when they are in pain. I believe this to be an important role of mine when rehabilitating a patient. Movement is one way the body heals itself! Movement lubricates the joints, moves the body through its desired range of motion and increases circulation, which brings nutrients to all the nooks and crannies of the body. This is why it is important to move when in pain.
However, the reason that people often see a physical therapist is because when they exercise or move in certain ways, it hurts. You should not be doing exercise that worsens the pain while performing the exercise or after the exercise. Usually, this means people need a modification in exercise or movement as well as a way to cross-training (incorporating a different activity in your routine to allow an active rest period (that is where I come in!). An active rest period allows you to rest the body part that is injured while still moving the rest of your body, so you are still getting all the benefits of movement without the added discomfort or pain.
It is worth seeing a professional to assess your pain and movement because pain can be minimized quickly with improvements in form or even from the repetition of a painful movement. Another important question to ask yourself is does the pain stays the same, meaning the movement does not make the pain worse or better? If the pain does not worsen, then we often accept the movement as good because we know the positive benefits movement has on the body, especially on the injured area.
If you participate in a new exercise and your pain increases later that day, during the night or even the next day, that is a good indication that the exercise dose was too intense. You can modify by decreasing repetition, time, or load and continue to monitor how your body responds to the new movement.
Keep (slowly and safely) experimenting with new movements! The benefits are worth the trial and error.