Muscle injuries are painful, and while sometimes overlooked, a muscle injury is one of the quickest ways to sideline a good player. No matter what sport you play or how you managed to hurt yourself, the treatment and time it takes to heal from an acute sports injury are often the same.
Muscle injuries are caused by suddenly stretching a muscle beyond its level of elasticity, and this can occur on a sports field or in your own backyard. The good news is that you don’t need a professional trainer to properly treat minor ligament, tendon, or muscle injuries; you just need to know some basic information on how to treat and rehabilitate the injury.
Immediately After an Injury
There are a few things you can expect within the first few hours of an injury, and some basic things you can do to jump-start the healing process.
Other than the immediate pain, you also might experience swelling and bruising. The initial sharp pain will give way to a throbbing ache. The area is likely to be extremely sensitive to movement and will usually be fairly tender to touch as well. Normal use will be hindered or impossible for at least the first few hours.
There is an easy way to remember how to immediately begin treating that painful pulled muscle. R.I.C.E. is an acronym that many sports trainers and athletes use as a reminder of what to do for sports injuries. R.I.C.E. stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
After an injury, rest is the most effective way to start the healing process. A sprained muscle is weak and vulnerable to further injury, especially in the first few hours.
The benefits of ice are most significant within the first day or two of injury. Applying ice to a new injury will help relieve pain and prevent swelling by decreasing blood flow to the area. Placing a cold pack or a bag of frozen veggies in a towel will protect your tender skin from getting too cold. It’s possible to give yourself frostbite, so never place the ice bag directly on bare skin and apply the ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, allowing your skin to return to normal temperature in between icing.
An elastic bandage wrapped firmly around an injury can further prevent swelling and ease pain by keeping the area somewhat immobilized. The bandage doesn’t necessarily always keep you from moving, but it can remind you to keep from moving it. If a wrapping causes tingling or numbness in the extremity, remove it and rewrap the area more loosely. The bandage should not be so tight that it causes discomfort or interferes with blood flow. Even gentle compression can help keep fluid away from the area of injury.
Because of gravity, fluids flow downhill, so propping an injury above the level of your heart helps fluid drain away from the injured area and helps to reduce swelling. If you cannot elevate an injured area to a level above the heart, at least try to keep it at the same level or close to it. If, for example, you suffered an injury to the buttocks or hips, try lying down with a pillow or two below your buttocks or lower back to help lift the area of injury.
A Day Later
The day after suffering an injury is often the most painful. Swelling will likely be at its worst a few hours to a couple of days after the injury occurred. Bruising will continue for the first few hours and can be quite extreme by the next day, turning the entire area a deep purple and/or black.
The R.I.C.E. treatment method is appropriate for the first 48 to 72 hours after an injury. During this time, you should keep the area wrapped with an elastic bandage, if possible, elevate it when you can, and apply ice every few hours. If pain is severe, an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory (such as aspirin or ibuprofen) can help. Acetaminophen is effective for pain and fever but not for inflammation.
It is important that during the first three days of a sports injury you do not apply heat to the area, as heat can increase circulation and worsen swelling.
Three Days to a Week Later
After about 72 hours, sports injuries have usually entered the healing process. You will notice less pain, sometimes only noticing tenderness when you move the joint or prod the area. Swelling will usually subside after the first three days, and bruises will start to fade (purple subsides to brown and green, then yellow before returning to normal). The changing colors of the bruise reflect the breakdown of blood that was trapped in the skin as a result of the injury.
Once the swelling has gone down, you can begin to alternate heat packs with ice. Applying heat will help circulate blood to the injured area, which delivers oxygen and nutrients to help the healing process. Both ice and heat can help with pain, and many trainers recommend alternating ice with heat every few hours. You can also remove the compression bandages and begin to gently exercise the area. Start slowly with light stretches, never pushing it to the point of pain (slight discomfort is ok). You’ll notice your range of motion increasing a little more each day. Keep stretching and moving for the first few weeks until you are comfortable with normal use and exercise. Immobilization is bad for injured parts of the body that are a few days old or more because it can cause stiffness. You want to start moving the injured part and/or walking with a normal gait as soon as possible after injury.
After a Month
The first few weeks are the most painful, but you may notice some pain and tenderness for several weeks to a few months after an injury. This is normal, and you can use heating pads or ice to relieve pain. Medicated sports cream can also help with the discomfort and are available at almost any pharmacy.
After the first month, there should be no swelling and any bruises will have faded away. If you notice swelling or discoloration after four weeks, you should visit a doctor to make sure there are no additional problems. Severe pain after the first few weeks is also reason to have the injury further evaluated.
Continue to stretch and exercise the area even after the symptoms have subsided. A muscle or joint that has been injured once is more vulnerable to additional injuries. Exercise can reduce the risk of repeat injuries. In addition, proper stretching and moderate exercise can help prevent injuries of all kinds.
As long as the injury heals appropriately, you should be able to return to your regular workout routines.