Acute Injury Management help guide – What to do if you get injured?
Acute Injury Management: What to do next?
Whether you engage in high-intensity sport or you’ve been doing gentle exercise, injuries are not uncommon. Putting our body under stress can lead to damage to ligaments and muscles, joints and bones. Typically, injuries recover quickly. However, if left untreated, acute injuries can morph into chronic conditions that plague athletes for years to come. Therefore, it is vital to have a good knowledge of acute injury management, so you can spot and diagnose an injury and treat it using the appropriate measures. You may also need professional help.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the basics of acute injuries, including what they are, what you need to do immediately, and what to expect from the recovery process.
What are acute injuries?
Acute injuries come in many different forms. The location and tissue damaged are likely associated with the sport or exercise you were doing. Running and football often lead to leg injuries, while rugby is commonly associated with damage to the shoulder. That’s not to say an injury cannot occur anywhere on the body.
Here are the most common injuries to expect:
- Sprains are caused by overstretching or tearing a ligament – the tissue that connects the bones at a joint.
- Strains occur when the muscles or tendons are torn or overstretched – tendons are the fibrous cords of tissue that joins muscle to bone.
- Swollen muscles are caused by overuse or impact on the muscle.
- Tendon rupture is when the tendon breaks or ruptures, causing immediate pain and difficulty using the associated muscle.
- Dislocations are when a bone is forced from the joint, leading to pain, swelling and weakness. The bone must be put back into place.
Common structures that are injured include:
- Anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL): Located near the back of the ankle, it absorbs most of the impact, if the foot is placed unnaturally.
- Acromioclavicular ligament (AC): The attachment between the shoulder and clavicle – a common area for shoulder injuries.
- Rotator cuff: The muscles and ligament securing the arm to the shoulder.
- Knee ligaments: Ligaments such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or lateral ligaments are commonly torn or strained due to overstretching.
- Achilles tendon: Located at the back of the heel, it is prone to rupture.
Immediate action required
If you have an acute injury, use the PRICE method: Protect, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. The PRICE method is best used within 24 to 36 hours after the injury was caused. It will reduce swelling, preventing further damage and bruising. Start by immobilising the joint or muscle with a splint, sling or brace. Rest for several days or a week. Use ice to cool the injury and compression wraps to prevent swelling. Raise the injury to prevent further swelling.
Over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are used to soothe pain and inflammation and promote healing. However, if the injury is causing severe pain, or you are unable to use the affected area entirely, seek medical advice.
Most of all, rest and recover. Do not try to use the injured area in the period after injury. Doing so can lead to further damage and trauma to the affected area. Instead, allow the healing process to unfold and begin resuming activities incrementally.
Ice vs Heat: Injury treatment
Ice is most commonly used for orthopaedics injuries. It helps to reduce inflammation, swelling and pain. When an injury occurs, your body becomes inflamed: a normal part of the healing process. However, too much inflammation can do more harm than good, leading to disability.
If you have a sprain, strain or inflammation of a tendon, use ice. Never apply ice directly to the skin. Instead, use a cold compress, wrapping the ice in a cloth. Move the ice continuously, and stop after 15 to 20 minutes.
Conversely, heat is most often used for chronic conditions. It stimulates blood flow, improving the healing process. However, you can use heat for muscle tension and stiffened joints. But heat should never be used after activity or to treat an acute injury. If you are using heat, use a steamed towel or moist heating pad. Once again, continuously move the heat and stop after 20 minutes. It is best used before an activity.
What happens to tissues during recovery?
During recovery, soft tissue undergoes three stages of healing:
Inflammatory stage – Blood vessels transport nutrients and cells to the site of the injury. Any openings into the body, such as cuts or gashes, will clot and scab. The swelling will prevent further movement of the affected joint, and limit further injury.
Repair stage – The damaged tissue will be replaced with new tissue, some of which will be laid haphazardly, becoming ‘scar tissue’. Function begins to be restored, and inflammation subsides.
Remodelling stage – Finally, the scar tissue is gradually remodelled into normal, healthy tissue. Function will slowly return to an approximate of normal.
Importance of rehabilitation in recovery
Following an acute injury, there is an eagerness to return to normal. Around 55% of athletes who return to sport are at the same performance level as before the injury. However, for many, the injured area remains weaker – the healing process has not been complete. Therefore, the risk of re-injury is high.
Using physiotherapists and professional help is vital at all stages of recovery for a severe acute injury. They can help correctly identify the injured structure, prescribing exercise to improve function and prevent chronic problems. Doing so speeds recovery and prevents re-injury risk. Otherwise, the injury can heal poorly, increasing future problems.
Tissue loading – applying weight to the injured tissue – is often ill-advised. However, many studies find that the gentle application of weight to injured sites can speed recovery. Such exercises are best done under the guidance of a professional.
Remember to use PRICE (pressure, rest, ice, compression, and elevation) if you have an acute injury. Medications such as NSAIDs and gentle exercise can speed recovery. If severe, always seek medical help both acutely and in recovery. Use ice to soothe acute injuries after exercise and heat for chronic injuries before exercise. Follow each step, and you can reduce recovery times and improve your overall function.
The information contained in this article is intended as general guidance and information only and should not be relied upon as a basis for planning individual medical advice. If you are suffering with an acute injury, contact us today for free advice and support.