Effective techniques to treat sprains and strains

If you have an active lifestyle, treating a sprain or strain can be especially difficult. Here are some effective techniques to help you reduce swelling for fast relief.

Effective techniques to treat sprains and strains

3 different kinds of strains and sprains

Both strains and sprains are categorized — and treated — according to their severity.

  • "Mild" sprains and muscle strains, which involve minimal pain and swelling and little loss of function, can often be treated at home.
  • A "moderate" strain or sprain, which causes a good deal of pain and swelling, and often bruising, should be X-rayed to see how bad the injury actually is.
  • A "severe" injury, which means you can't move the body part or put any extra weight on it, will probably require stabilization and possibly even surgery if a ligament is torn.
  • You'll probably feel relief from a mild strain in a few days, and it should heal in about a week; a mild sprain can take at least 10 days until you're able to move the joint normally again. For a moderate strain or sprain, three to six weeks of recovery may be required. Severe strains and sprains can require eight to 12 months to fully heal.
  • Once the swelling and pain subside, you should start some gentle stretching and strengthening exercises) and/or make an appointment with a physical therapist (PT).

Make sure you're getting lots of rest

For a day or two after the injury, avoid any activity that causes pain (and definitely stay away from sports).

  • If you have an ankle or leg injury and must move around, use crutches, a sling, splint, brace or other type of support to keep from re-injuring yourself.
  • Because there are so many products available, ask your doctor which is best for you.

The right way to ice your injury

Just as important as resting is icing the area during the first 12 to 48 hours. This can blunt pain, lessen swelling and speed healing in several ways.

  • Apply the ice for 10 minutes every two to three hours while you're awake. One way to do this is to put chipped or crushed ice in a heavy plastic bag, or wrap it in a towel, and then run it gently over the injured area. A cooled gel pack also works, as does a bag of frozen peas if you're in a pinch. All these conform to your body contours better than whole ice cubes. Immersing the injured area in ice water for a short time can also bring relief.
  • While cooling is key, be aware that applying ice for too long (more than 10 minutes) can actually increase damage to your injury by lowering your skin temperature too far: at around 15°C (59°F) the blood vessels start to widen rather than constrict.
  • If the skin itself turns red, hot, painful or itchy, you'll know you've iced too long. Remove the ice and your skin should return to normal in a few minutes.

Consider a compression aid

To protect the injured area and minimize swelling, ask your doctor about using an elastic wrap, air cast, splint or specially designed boot.

  • Make sure the compression isn't too tight or it could worsen circulation.
  • Don't sleep wearing a compression aid.

Elevate your injury to reduce swelling

Raise the injured area above heart level as often as possible. This allows gravity to draw blood and other fluids that can cause swelling away from the injury. It may take a couple of days before you see results, however.

  • If you've sprained your ankle, prop your foot way up — toes above your nose. Once the swelling has subsided, try heat.
  • Use a hot compress or a heating pad, or take a hot bath or shower to increase circulation. If the swelling starts again, stop the heat and return to the cold.

If your sprain or strain isn't severe, rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) are key for reducing swelling, slowing any internal bleeding and reducing pain. Keep this guide in mind and be sure to contact your doctor for more treatment options.

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