Did you throw too many passes and hurt your shoulder? Did you twist your ankle working in the yard? Did you lift too much weight and injure your knees? If your answer is yes to any of these or other injuries, you’ve probably experienced swelling and inflammation.When the body is injured, whether from sports or overexertion, the immune system responds with swelling and inflammation. During the inflammatory response, the body rushes white blood cells, proteins, antibodies, and various supportive fluids to the injury. This causes inflammation and swelling.1
The excess fluid produced by the body helps protect damaged tissues from further injury. Although a certain amount of swelling is unavoidable, it’s important to do what you can to help control the process for these important reasons:
- Too much swelling may slow down healing.
- Untreated inflammation may lead to even more swelling.
- Excess swelling can be uncomfortable and sometimes limit your range of motion.2
How to Help Reduce Swelling After an Injury
There are several methods you can use to help control the body’s natural inflammatory response. Try using any or all of these five tips to help reduce swelling and control pain2,3:
Using an injured body part may contribute to swelling by encouraging blood flow and irritating damaged cells. For example, trying to walk after an ankle sprain may cause additional excess fluid to build up as your body continues to protect the damaged tissues. Although it may be tempting to try to continue normal activity after an injury, it’s usually a good idea to rest the area for at least a few days.
2. Cold Therapy
Applying cold immediately after an injury helps reduce swelling by restricting blood flow to the area and slowing down cellular metabolism. You can use ice packs, cold therapy systems, ice baths, or cryotherapy chambers to deliver cold to the affected area. Apply cold several times a day for 20-30 minutes at a time to help keep swelling down, especially in the first several days after an injury.4
Applying pressure to an injury helps reduce swelling by restricting the flow of blood and other fluids. You can apply compression with static bandages, elastic bandages, or cold and compression devices. When using static or elastic bandages, adjust the pressure as necessary to make sure they provide enough compression without being too constrictive. As swelling increases and decreases, you should adjust the bandages accordingly.
Elevating an injury above the level of the heart also contributes to reduced blood flow, which may mean less swelling. With leg injuries, it’s important to keep the legs elevated while seated or reclining so that excess fluid is not allowed to collect around the injury. Following a leg injury, the risk of a dangerous blood clot increases if you don’t elevate the injury, especially if you spend a lot of time sitting or in bed.5 Comfortably elevate injured areas while sleeping by using soft pillows as props.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation in the body and alleviate the pain of an injury. Always follow the dosage guidelines and ask your doctor about potential interactions with other medications.
You can get the most benefit from cold and compression by combining the two in a system that delivers consistent cold while helping your body pump excess fluid away from the injured area. Cold therapy can be used after an injury to help control pain, reduce swelling, and help you recover as quickly as possible.
Reducing Swelling from Specific Injuries
Although the inflammatory response is consistent throughout the body, there are specific actions you can take to help address it in various areas.6
Addressing the swelling in foot injuries may include elevating the foot above the level of the heart, applying cold therapy, and using a compression bandage or active compression system to help remove excess fluid from the area. If circulation is poor or you have to be on your feet, it’s important to elevate, ice, and compress regularly throughout the day to keep the swelling down. Wear comfortable shoes, and avoid high heels or pointed toes.
Sprains and strains in ankle tissues are some of the most common injuries.7 Reducing swelling in ankle injuries is similar to the approach for foot injuries. In addition to elevation and cold therapy, you might also consider wearing an ankle brace to provide consistent static compression and help prevent the buildup of excess fluid.
Swelling from knee injuries can impact your range of motion in the joint and make it difficult to walk.8 You can help reduce swelling by applying cold therapy several times a day and wearing an elastic bandage or brace. If mobility is an issue, consider using a crutch, a cane, or another assistive device to keep pressure off the leg while you recover from a knee injury.
It’s difficult to elevate the upper legs. Their larger surface area also makes smaller ice packs less effective, which is why the body-conforming wraps used in cold therapy systems are beneficial. Applying compression to the groin, quadriceps, or hamstrings is also not as easy with elastic bandages, making active compression wraps a good alternative for injuries in leg tissues.
Swelling is a natural response to injury, but left unchecked, it may prolong your recovery time. Be proactive with tactics such as elevation, cold therapy, and compression to help your body heal faster.
Speak with your doctor if you are interested in cold and compression therapy for your recovery.
- Immune response. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000821.htm.
- Baumert PW. Acute inflammation after injury: Quick control speeds rehabilitation. Postgraduate Medicine. 1995;97(2):35-49. doi:10.1080/00325481.1995.11945957.
- Moroz A. Rehabilitative measures for treatment of pain and inflammation. Merck Manuals Professional Edition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/special-subjects/rehabilitation/rehabilitative-measures-for-treatment-of-pain- and-inflammation. Published June 2017.
- When to use hot and cold to treat a muscle injury. United Hospital Center Orthopaedics. https://wvorthocenter.com/when-to-use-hot-and-cold-to-treat-a-muscle-injury/. Published July 20, 2017.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Mayo Clinic.
Published March 6, 2018.
- Campagne D. Overview of sprains and other soft-tissue injuries. Merck Manuals Professional Edition. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/sprains-and-other-soft-tissue-injuries/overview-of-sprains-and-other-soft-tissue-injuries. Published August 2017.
- Sprains. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sprains/symptoms-causes/syc-20377938. Published December 22, 2018.
- Cronkleton E. Causes of knee tightness, and what you can do. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/tightness-in-knee. Published July 24, 2018.