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Weekend Warrior: Simple Self-Care for Minor Strains, Sprains, and Bruises

Whether you're an athlete or a semi-out-of-shape desk lounger who hasn't seen a gym in months, soft-tissue injuries (think strains, sprains, and bruises) can happen to anybody at any time. A weekend softball outing gone bad, too much time bent over a garden or computer, even a fender bender in the car can leave you hurting unexpectedly.

So, really, everyone should know how to properly treat soft-tissue injuries. Doing the right things both in the immediate aftermath and in the days and weeks that follow may help get you back on your game faster, whatever that game may be. (Did we mention that porch step that needed fixing or pooch that needed cuddling?)

Strains, Sprains, and Bruises Defined

Is a strain the same as a sprain? Is one easier to heal from than the other? Are bruises no big deal, medically speaking? Let's clarify:

  • Strains are caused by overstretching or tearing the tendons or muscles that help support and move a joint. A tendon is simply the fibrous ending of a muscle that connects to bone. Many strains are minor -- just small tears in the tissue -- but some can be severe. Worst case and not minor: A tendon could completely sever and require surgical repair.
  • Sprains are likewise caused by overstretching or tearing, but they occur in ligaments -- the strong, fibrous bands that hold joints together.
  • Bruises happen when a muscle, ligament, or tendon sustains a blow forceful enough to injure capillaries, so they break open and cause blood to collect under the skin and in the injured tissue. Most bruises are minor and heal with treatment at home. But some can be severe and take weeks or months to heal. Bruising can even occur in vital organs, if the injured tissue is a vital organ.

Whether you've suffered a strain, a sprain, or a bruise, use this three-step "what-to-do-and-when-to-do-it" self-care guide to help you clamp down on pain, stymie swelling, speed the healing process, and feel better faster. Do you have a sprain or a strain? Take this mini online assessment to find out.

1. Skip the heroics. Thinking you can make it through that last inning despite the throbbing pain in your ankle or wrist is thinking gone wrong. The instant you feel any pain, stop and rest -- and ice the injury for 20 minutes -- so you don't injure yourself further.

2. Don't wait. To see the doctor, that is. Although many soft-tissue injuries are minor and can be successfully treated at home, don't hesitate to seek medical attention for your injury -- especially if the pain is severe and you can't move or put weight on the injured body part.

3. Begin RICE immediately. Delaying RICE treatment (an acronym for rest, ice, compression, and elevation) could mean more pain and swelling and a longer recovery period. So start these self-care steps the minute you've sustained an injury:

  • Rest: Cut back on normal daily activities and avoid putting weight on the injured body part.
  • Ice: Use an ice pack on the injured area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, anywhere from four to eight times per day. Don't use the ice pack for longer than 20 minutes, and wrap it in a T-shirt or thin towel so you don't burn your skin.
  • Compression: To reduce pain and swelling, wrap the injured area with an elastic bandage or other doctor-recommended compression brace or device -- not too tightly, though. And ask your doctor for how long and how many times each day.
  • Elevation: Use pillows or blankets to raise the injured limb above the level of the heart to minimize swelling.

You may also find pain medications helpful while you wait for the injury to feel better. Many docs prefer ibuprofen or acetaminophen -- which can help with pain, inflammation, and swelling -- instead of aspirin, which has more potent blood-thinning properties that may interfere with the clotting of blood in damaged vessels. Could your pain reliever be doing more harm than good? Read this article to find out.

Once you've taken initial self-care steps at home, and your doctor has evaluated the injury, give yourself time to heal. Rushing back into the game may only set you up for further injury and setbacks. Be patient and take good care of yourself and, before you know it, you'll be ready for a slow and gradual program of exercise or physical therapy that gets you back up to speed.

September, 2009