Lots of patients arrive in clinic a few days after an injury has occurred, which hasn’t resolved on its own. During the initial discussion, the patient often describes how they were unclear about what they should have done to help the pain.
Ice? Heat? Rest? Movement? Painkillers? Or will they mask the pain so I hurt myself more? Keep working through the pain so my muscles don’t weaken? All questions I’ve heard many times.
See below for the best way to deal with an acute injury – one that’s just occurred. Hope this helps any future mishaps!
Treatment of an acute injury:
Sprains and strains to muscles and joints happen to all of us and for most they are a painful, but temporary reminder to be a little more careful. Prompt action can help your body to heal faster and may prevent further injury or prolonged pain.
Strained or ‘pulled’ muscles often happen when we over exert untrained muscles, train without properly warming up or try to go beyond a joint’s natural flexibility. Sometimes we feel the pain straight away, however some injuries might not cause pain until later on. What can you do?
Remember RICE (Relative rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation), using these can help to relieve the pain and start the healing process.
Relative rest: The first thing to do if you feel pain is to reduce the offending activity – pain is usually your body’s way of telling you that there is something wrong that needs your attention. It can be normal to feel a little sore after exercises for a day or two, but if it is more than this, pushing through the pain is rarely beneficial.
However, movement stimulates the healing process so stay as mobile as you comfortably can. Try to keep the joint moving through a comfortable range of motion, without forcing it to the point of pain. This will help to encourage blood flow and keep your joint flexible whilst it heals. This is particularly relevant for back pain as gentle exercise, such as walking, can help. You should slowly build your activity levels up as soon as your symptoms begin to resolve and as soon as you are able.
Ice: Cooling the area using an ice pack can help to reduce swelling and pain. Wrap a thin tea towel around the area so as to avoid direct skin contact and then apply the pack to the injured area for 10 – 15 minutes. You should repeat this several times per day for the first 72 hours. This will help to control inflammation, making it easier for your body to get blood and nutrients to the area and resolve the injured tissues.
Compression: Gently applying a compression dressing may help to temporarily support the injured joint and reduce swelling, though remove this immediately if there are signs that this is reducing the circulation to the area (numbness, pins and needles, the skin turning white or blue etc).
Elevation: If the injury is in the lower limb (knee or ankle), elevating the area a little can make it easier for your body drain fluids that might accumulate around the area, causing swelling. For example, if you’ve hurt your knee, sitting down with the knee raised on a low foot stool may ease your pain.
Seek medical attention. If you have pain that can’t be controlled with over the counter painkillers, can’t put weight on the injured limb, experience paralysis or loss of sensation or the swelling is very bad seek help from your local A&E department, urgent care centre or telephone 111 for advice.
If the pain or swelling fails to improve within a week, a visit to an osteopath may be beneficial. They will be able to assess the injury, advise you on the correct treatment and can provide some manual therapy which may help it get better faster.