July 21, 2023
Some injuries scream, “Get to a doctor now!” — your anatomy looks noticeably wrong, or something sticks out from the injured area.
More minor injuries — like twisting an ankle or pulling a muscle — can be treated at home. But knowing what steps to take can impact how quickly you heal and how soon you feel better.
The challenge is that recommendations for at-home therapies aren’t always clear, says MU Health Care physical therapist Sarah Miller. And they’ve likely changed a little since you were a child.
“People tend to try whatever their parents have done or what they see on social media,” Miller adds. “But those approaches don’t always have medical merit.”
To set you straight and put you on the path to home healing, Miller shared some tips for treating minor injuries at home:
1. It’s Okay to Wait 24 Hours and Reevaluate
If your injury isn’t an apparent emergency, Miller recommends waiting 24 hours. See if the swelling goes down and if you can apply weight to the injured area. Those are good indicators that you might be self-healing.
“Our bodies are resilient,” Miller says. “Giving your body time to heal is a good way to determine whether the injury needs medical attention or if it’s something your body will heal naturally.”
Consider seeking medical care if, after a few days of home therapy, you still notice:
- Swelling has not gone down
- Ability to bear weight hasn’t improved
“If you can’t put any weight on the area (walking, lifting something or putting body weight on your hands and wrists), that’s a sign that it could be something like a hairline fracture,” Miller says.
2. Think Twice Before Applying Ice (or Jumping Into an Ice Bath After an Injury)
The use of ice for acute injuries is a hot debate in health and wellness right now. Ice is still a good choice to relieve pain and reduce swelling, but it has one drawback.
“Ice can help with pain, and we know it decreases inflammation,” Miller says. “But doing that slows down the natural healing process. There is not much research showing that ice helps with tissue healing in the most recent literature.”
Don’t be afraid to apply an ice pack or bag of frozen peas to an acute injury if it’s swollen and causing pain. But use it in moderation so that your body can begin to heal.
If you’re considering an ice bath for severe muscle soreness, Miller recommends low-level cardio (like walking or biking) instead. “Full body, cold therapy immersions benefit your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which can benefit your stress response and mood, but aren’t great for healing,” she says. “They’re more for waking up your body by shocking the system.”
3. Use Heat to Jump-Start Healing
Applying warm, moist heat to an acute injury can relax tightened muscles and get things moving. Using it for just 10 minutes should offer relief and loosen the area.
“Heat tends to improve vascular health,” Miller says. “It brings good blood flow to the area, which we know we need when we have irritated tissue.”
Part of healing a minor injury at home is listening to your body. “I always tell people to be their own scientist,” Miller says. “At the end of the day, there’s no harm in doing either ice or heat, especially in the first 12 hours.”
4. Only Use Over-the-Counter Pain Management When Necessary
There are many options for OTC pain remedies, including oral medication, oils, creams and gels. Miller understands the need to bring the pain level down but cautions that these treatments can mask symptoms when you need to listen to your body.
If you need something to help with pain, she recommends reaching for acetaminophen (Tylenol®) instead of ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin®) after an acute injury. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory that can help with swelling and pain but may interrupt natural healing.
“Try to assess the situation before you take over-the-counter medication or use a topical product,” Miller says. “That way, you can decide if the injury warrants medical attention or will heal on its own.” If, days after the injury, you still need something to manage the pain, you may want to see a health care professional.
5. Treat Lingering Swelling With Compression and Elevation
Areas furthest from your heart, such as fingers, wrists, ankles and toes, will naturally swell more. Even if the puffiness improves after a few days, you may have residual swelling in those areas. Compression (tightly wrapping the area) and elevation can help.
For compression, use an elastic bandage to wrap the area tightly. Start at the area farthest from the heart and gradually loosen the compression as you go.
“Check your skin around the wrap frequently,” Miller says. “If you’re wrapping an ankle, your toes should have good color. There’s no hard and fast rule for how long to keep a compression wrap on as long as it’s not too tight or uncomfortable.”
You can also elevate the injury from time to time instead. Any lingering swelling should be gone after three to four days, as your body heals itself.
6. Don’t Stretch the Tissue
Injuries such as a strained hamstring or pulled back muscle can immediately feel tight. Your first inclination may be to stretch it out. But Miller advises against that.
“There’s a reason why it feels tight and bound up,” she says. “If you stretch it, you may be recreating the movement that likely caused the tightness in the first place. There’s a reason it’s tight, so maybe don’t disrupt that healing response.”
Instead, try some soft tissue work. Relieve the tightness by gently using a foam roller, rolling pin or massage gun.
7. Gently Engage the Muscle
Growing up, you may have heard it’s best not to use an injured muscle. That’s not entirely true, says Miller. You certainly don’t want to throw a baseball if you’ve just injured your bicep. But it is therapeutic to gently activate the muscle with some submaximal isometric exercises — gently squeezing a muscle without lengthening it or involving joint movement.
For example, if you strain your bicep muscle, gently contract the muscle without moving your arm. Hold the contraction for 10 seconds and do it 10 times.
“We know from research that submaximal isometrics are very effective for acute muscle injuries. But most people don’t realize that you want to activate the muscle using a very gentle threshold,” Miller says. “That way, you’re not completely resting it and causing it to get stiff.”
Next Steps and Useful Resources
- Injured within the last week? See an expert at our walk-in sports injury clinic.
- Need to speak with an orthopaedic specialist? Find one today.
- Curious if physical therapy can help your injury? Learn more.