You’re being active. You’re slowly ramping up your intensity, duration, or volume. You’re warming up properly and doing mobility drills to improve your overall movement-quality. You’re taking note of things like sleep and stress and adjusting your activity accordingly.
But something happened and you got hurt. Ugh.
What you do in the days and weeks that follow an injury is crucial, not only for helping the injury itself heal but also for determining if that area becomes a ‘weak spot’ for you in the future, prone to more injuries.
And the real challenge is that as awesome as the internet is these days for helping you find answers you are looking for, it also provides enough information to create analysis paralysis. And ‘doing nothing’ is not ideal for recovering from an injury.
I’m going to give an overview of key steps to take once an injury has happened, remembering of course that every human and every injury is different and this is not a prescription for YOUR particular injury. And of course, always see a doctor if you are injured and have questions about your personal path to recovery.
Step 1: Decide if you’re going to go the ice route or not.
Ice has been a default part of post-injury action steps since forever. In the last few years, more review has been given to the data we have on injuries and icing (and it’s still a mixed bag) although the bag of “why ice isn’t helping as much as we thought it was” is getting heavier each year.
When you get injured, you release inflammatory mediators that widen the blood vessels near the injury. This allows more blood to flow to the injured area, which means more of your “clean-up crew”, the macrophages and leukocytes, can get in and get going on the healing process by collecting waste materials from cellular clean-up. (This is part of why edema and swelling show up around an injury site.)
When ice is applied to an area of the body, the cold temperature causes a restriction of the blood vessels, the exact opposite of what the body naturally does during the injury response.
Ice will have a numbing effect on pain, but whether you see that as a good thing or not, is up to you.
After the clean-up crew has collected the waste materials, they need to be removed – much like how your kidneys remove waste from your blood and shuttle it out via urine – except the system that kicks in here is called the lymphatic system. The lymph system will shuttle the waste back toward the heart and out of the body. And it does work, but it would be nice to help it along some. Enter compression and elevation.
Step 2: Elevate & compress as soon as possible for as long as possible in the 1st 24 hours.
Compression assists the body’s lymph system in draining the waste products that the clean-up crew pulled out of the injured area.
Elevation also assists in the same process. In addition, elevation also generally means you’re sitting down, resting. Consider ‘rest’ post-injury like you consider sleep – as an amazing wonder drug.
The whole notion of “push through the pain” or “do what you can with what you have” is insane if you’re actually injured.
You are an intricate organization of muscles, ligaments and tendons, and neurological connections that has now been compromised due to your injury. In order to continue moving, you will have to compensate in some way – whether that is with a gait change or a “bracing” of muscles that don’t normally have to “brace” for a specific movement or over-recruiting some other muscles to help.
The short of it is this: you’re not helping anything by continuing on if you are injured.
Many clients I’ve worked with move to immediate fear of losing fitness or gaining weight if they stop and rest. Neither of those is going to happen in the short period of time that you are allowing your body to begin healing itself.
How to compress:
- Use an ace bandage to wrap the area snugly, but not so tight that you cut off bloodflow.
- Wear compression clothing over the injured area.
- Compression can be worn for several hours at a time.
- Athletic tape isn’t ideal for compression as it quickly stretches and loses its ability to compress an area.
Step 3: Make your decision about anti-inflammatories.
OTC pain relievers can damage the kidneys when taken for an extended period of time. They can also damage the gut lining and can disrupt the gut bacteria that control your immune system. It is up to you to determine if there is a time and place that OTC pain relievers fit in your lifestyle.
Step 4: Start lymph flush after 24 hours.
One thing that can work wonders for helping the lymphatic system move waste products out of the injured area and usher in new blood bringing with it repair materials is lymph flush using hot and cold water. The back and forth in temperature change to your body acts like a pump to move things along.
How to lymph flush:
- Spend up to 5 minutes in icy cold water.
- Spend up to 5 minutes in hot water.
- Repeat up up to 4 rounds, done 1 – 3 times per day.
Step 5: Get moving again…slowly…and with care.
If the injury is on one-side, do basic mobility work for the good side and as soon as you can start doing light, gentle, mobility for the injured side. There is fascinating evidence showing the benefits of stretching and range of motion work on one side of the body only and how that nets a positive result on both sides of the body. So playing with mobility in your non-injured side is worth your time. In addition, gently work the injured side back into full mobility.
How to mobilize:
- Start slowly, testing as many directions of motion as you can think of.
- Stop before you hit that “ouch pain!” point.
- Don’t worry that the mobility may be very poor initially. With consistent effort you will see it improve.
- Be consistent. Your job is to get your injured area healed up in a timely manner. The first reason so many injuries take so long to heal is the injured person isn’t actively engaged in the recovery process.
- Whatever you do on one-side, you do on the other.
You may need to be far more patient than you’d prefer as you let your body heal. But patience you must have in the journey toward your active life again. Diving back into activity again too soon can cause re-injury of the area, or injury to a new area as your body is still using compensatory mechanisms.
Start small and slow as you return to activity. I tell my clients that I’d prefer they do just an ounce less than what they are capable of right now, instead of doing one ounce more than what the body is capable of.
Getting injured is never fun. Everyone can agree on that. But, you must give trust to your body that it can, and will, heal.
Keep your mindset focused on the steps that are in front of you once an injury happens, instead of focusing it on all the things you can’t do but desperately want to. In what is truly a blink of an eye of your entire lifetime, you’ll be back in action with a fully capable body.
Kate Galliett is the creator of Fit for Real Life where she brings together body, mind, and movement to help people become highly-charged and fit for real life. She coaches clients in-person, online, and through her foundational strength & mobility program, The Unbreakable Body. She holds a BS in Exercise Science and has worked as a fitness professional for 12 years. Her secret ingredient is always smoked paprika.
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