Treating a Minor Sports Injury

If you have a twisted ankle, shin splints, or a strained muscle, when should you see your healthcare provider? If you take care of your injury yourself, what sort of treatment should you follow?

The first step toward recovery is to stop what you’re doing. Trying to finish your tennis match or 5K run may make your injury worse. Continued activity may also increase your recovery time and turn a little problem into a big one.

Some injuries obviously need medical attention. Severe bleeding, obvious deformity in the bone or joint, or significant swelling and pain are signs of serious problems. Even injuries that feel like muscle pulls, strains, and sprains can turn out to be breaks (fractures) or tendon tears. That’s why it’s best to get a diagnosis from your healthcare provider.

For minor injuries, your healthcare provider will likely recommend RICE. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Doing these things can help limit pain and swelling after an injury. RICE also helps injuries heal faster. Use RICE for sprains, strains, and severe bruises or bumps. Follow these tips as soon as possible after an injury:

  • Rest. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to rest an injured area. However, some light exercise can help you heal more quickly. Exercise keeps your muscles flexible and your joints moving smoothly.

  • Ice. Ice is a great pain reliever. It numbs the injured area and reduces swelling. This is most effective immediately after the injury. The longer you wait, the less it will help.

    • To make an ice pack, put ice cubes in a plastic bag that seals at the top. Wrap the bag in a clean, thin towel or cloth. Never put ice or an ice pack directly on the skin.

    • Put the ice pack on the injured area for 20 minutes and then remove it for 20 minutes. Repeat this cycle every 20 minutes for up to 3 hours. If that’s too uncomfortable, leave it on for 20 minutes once every hour.

    • Continue as often as you feel comfortable over the next day or so. Don’t leave the ice on for more than 20 minutes at a time.

  • Compression. Putting pressure (compression) on an injury helps limit swelling and gives support.

    • Wrap the injured area with an elastic bandage. If your hand or foot tingles, changes color, or feels cold, the bandage may be too tight. Rewrap it more loosely.

    • If the bandage becomes loose, rewrap it.

    • Don't wear an elastic bandage overnight.

  • Elevation. Keeping an injury raised (elevated) helps reduce swelling. Keep the injured part above the level of your heart. 

With RICE, you should see improvements within 24 hours to 36 hours. If your injury doesn’t improve, call your healthcare provider.

Take these injuries to a healthcare provider

Head injuries can be far more serious than they first appear. Any loss of consciousness, however brief, signals a need for medical attention. Also see a healthcare provider for any symptoms resulting from the head injury that get worse rather than better.

Take care of possible internal injuries. Be especially careful if the kidneys or spleen are involved. The kidneys lie at the small of the back on either side of the spine. The spleen sits just below the rib cage on your left side. If you get hit in any of these areas, call your healthcare provider right away if you:

  • Feel lasting pain

  • Feel lightheaded

  • See blood in your urine

Online Medical Reviewer: Rajadurai Samnishanth
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Turley Jr PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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