It’s a tough pill to swallow: You don’t recover from minor injuries quite like your teenaged self once did. So whether you strained, sprained, or overused your body in some way, the injury probably requires some attention. “Pain is our body’s way of telling us that there has been damage, and, ideally, keeping us from causing more damage,” says David Harrison, MD, medical director and VP of clinical quality for Teladoc Health.
Here’s the good news: “The body has a remarkable ability to heal,” Dr. Harrison adds. “The name of the game is preventing reinjury until this amazing natural healing process is finished.”
So if you’re in pain, swollen, or feeling bothered by the latest tweak—caused by a sport or just an awkward mishap—read on for recovery tips. Every injury needs a plan of attack!
Tissue injuries defined
If you’ve done damage to a muscle, tendon, or ligament, that’s a soft-tissue injury. This can happen during an exercise or athletic event, or even during an ordinary activity like picking up a heavy object, missing a step on the stairs, or doing yardwork. Tissue can also become inflamed from repetitive use. Dr. Harrison explains the basic differences:
- Sprains occur when ligaments—tissue connecting bones to other bones—become stretched and/or torn. These can be mild, moderate, or severe and cause pain, bruising, swelling, and inflammation.
- Strains occur when muscles or tendons—tissue connecting muscles to bones—become stretched or torn, bringing pain, muscle spasm or weakness, swelling, inflammation, or cramping.
- Contusions occur when soft tissues are banged directly; this causes bruising that appears purple due to bleeding.
- Tendinitis is inflammation of tendons, often caused by overuse, as with “tennis elbow.” This can cause pain, swelling, and irritation, especially with activity.
- Bursitis is inflammation of bursae, small sacs that lie in between bone and tendons that serve as cushions. Pain and swelling are common.
This broad group of tissue injuries can range from minor nuisance to major loss of functioning. If you’re having trouble using the limb or are experiencing a lot of swelling, a medical evaluation is needed, Dr. Harrison says, giving an example:
“If you have a sprained ankle, but can walk on it with just a mild limp and it doesn’t hurt to touch, this can usually be treated at home. But if you had to be carried off the field and have point tenderness at the outside ‘bony knob’ of the ankle, you could have a fracture.”
Consulting with a physician using Teladoc Health’s video or photo tools is a convenient, useful way to determine whether or not you require a physical exam or X-ray, Dr. Harrison says, noting “a picture can be worth a thousand words.”
Pro recovery tips
Once you’re sure that you don’t have a serious injury, Dr. Harrison recommends the minor injury prescription RICE:
- Rest the injured area. It’s very important not to aggravate the injury. Consider keeping weight off it, or using a splint or sling so it can’t move much.
- Ice the area to fight inflammation. As soon as you can following the injury, apply a cold pack, compression sleeve with cold water, or even a bag of frozen peas! Leave the compress on for only about 15 minutes at a time, and ice as frequently as possible throughout your day, especially during the first two to three days.
- Compress it. Wrap the injury with an elastic or neoprene bandage to reduce swelling and for support. You can get this at your local drugstore.
- Elevate the limb to help decrease swelling. Prop an injured angle or knee up with pillows, or raise an injured arm high to control swelling.
While practicing RICE, you may need pain relief. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help ease inflammation and discomfort. Dr. Harrison also suggests trying not only ice but heat treatments to the injured area, since “heat helps increase blood flow to the muscles and sometimes helps muscle strains feel better,” he says.
Getting to good health
Soft tissue injuries like sprains and strains can happen when we overdo a new workout regimen or go “all in” on a friendly game of ball. With the right conditioning, training, and preparation, you’ll have a better chance of staying healthy.1 Be sure to start fitness routines gradually, and do a mix of cardio, strength-training, and flexibility exercises. Before heavy activity, get your heart rate up and then do a series of controlled stretches for various muscle groups. On the flip side, cool down and stretch again.
Make sure to stay well-hydrated during physical activity, with a goal of at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. If you’re exercising vigorously or feeling pain, work in some rest days.
Pain is usually an indicator to back off, or that you may have sustained an injury. If you can’t use the joint at all, or are experiencing serious pain and swelling, you may need medical attention. If you keep re-injuring the same area, an expert evaluation is also in order.
If you’re not sure just how bad your injury is, reach out to one of our U.S. board-certified physicians any time of the day or night. Via phone, secure video, or mobile device, our experts can advise on your next steps—for at-home treatment or a specialist visit.
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