What to Do About a Sports Injury

Whether it's a twisted ankle, a shin splint or a strained muscle, when should you see a doctor for a sports injury? If you take care of an injured limb or muscle yourself, what sort of treatment should you follow?

The first step toward recovery is to discontinue what you're doing. You may want to play the decisive third set of a tennis match or finish a 5K run, but that aching arm or throbbing ankle will only get worse, increasing your recovery time and turning a little problem into a big one.

Some injuries obviously need medical attention. Severe bleeding, obvious deformity in the joint or significant swelling and pain are signs of serious problems. But what about borderline injuries: the pulls, strains and sprains that sometimes turn out to be fractures? When in doubt, always call your health care provider.

For minor injuries, the best treatment is RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation:

  • Rest. Rest doesn't mean bed rest. It means taking a break from the activity that caused the injury or any movements that cause pain. In fact, if you can continue at least mild exercise without pain, that can help you heal more quickly. Exercise promotes blood flow, one way the body heals itself.

  • Ice. If you have a freezer and water, you have access to an effective, cheap, nonprescription pain reliever: ice. Try using shaved or crushed ice instead of cubes, which tend to have sharp edges. Ice is great for numbing the injured area and reducing swelling. This is most effective immediately after the injury, however; the longer you wait, the less it will help. Apply the ice pack for 20 minutes, then remove for 20 minutes. If that's too uncomfortable, leave it on for 20 minutes every hour. Continue as often as you feel comfortable over the next day or so.

  • Compression. Several products compress an injured area. An elastic bandage is probably best because you can also use it to secure an ice bag. Wrap the injured area with a layer or two of bandage, apply the ice pack and continue wrapping. Make sure you don't apply any compression device so tightly that you cut off circulation, but it needs to be tight enough to help prevent fluid from accumulating.

  • Elevation. This means getting the injured part above the level of your heart. That's probably easiest at night in bed. Although you can prop up your leg with pillows, a more effective way is to slip a dresser drawer or a suitcase between the mattress and box spring.

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

Take these injuries to a doctor

Head injuries can be far more serious than they first appear. Any loss of consciousness, however brief, signals a need for medical attention.

Take care with possible internal injuries. Be especially careful if the kidneys or spleen is 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 and feel persistent pain, see your health care provider.