Introduction: Self-care for Minor Sports Injuries

If you get hurt, get trained medical help.

But when you get dinged up a little here and there, as most athletes do, a little self-care can go a long way. This instructable offers some basic principals and practices for taking care of sore muscles and minor injuries that don't require a hospital visit.

Written by a somewhat trained person who gets hurt a lot, these are not definitive medical care instructions, but can help readers better understand minor sports injuries.

Step 1: Warnings: Know What You Don't Know

It isn't always easy to know the difference between a really sore muscle and an injury that won't improve without medical intervention. However, it is a really good idea to lean toward getting professional care when you are dealing with something unfamiliar. While in the ER, ask a lot of questions, and next time you'll be better prepared to make the call between spending the night in the ER or on your couch.

If you suspect you have a broken bone, you must go get an X-ray and orthopedic care.

If you suspect you have dislocated a joint, you must get orthopedic care (unless you have dislocated that joint many times before and know exactly what's going on with it).

If your vital signs - heart rate, breathing, mental alertness, etc - don't go back to normal within a minute of an injury, seek emergency care.

If you have any change in mental state - momentary blackout, disorientation, unusual hostility, confusion or frustration, "Wha happened?" - seek emergency care.

If you have limited circulation (diabetics), clotting disorders, are on blood thinners, or have any major medical issues, these instructions don't apply to you. Check with your doctor.

If you don't know what you're doing, or something seems wrong, go with your gut and seek professional care. Seeing a theme here? Bottom line is, you have to make good decisions and these instructions can't replace good judgment. I'm not there, so it's your call. If you don't have enough information, get to a medical professional.

Step 2: Basic Principals

What we're talking about:

Nearly all minor sports injuries start with either damage or overuse of a muscle or joint. At the self-care level, treatment of any of these is similar. So these instruction can apply to any minor closed limb injury where you can walk off the field (or ice or skate park or whatever), but you're pretty sure you tweaked something. Maybe it's nothing, but hey, a little TLC can't hurt, right? These guidelines apply to injuries that will heal themselves without medical intervention.

Why you do this:

If you're gonna get better naturally, why bother treating it? It's a question of when. Treating minor injuries aggressively encourages quicker and more complete healing. This stuff can take a minor injury and get it fixed in a matter of days. The same injury, when ignored, can linger for weeks and months.

Step 3: Early Cold Is Amazing

If you remember nothing else, remember this: if a sports injury hurts, get cold on it quickly.

How much cold, how long, etc doesn't matter much. Just get it on FAST.

What's this doing? You body tends to overreact to injury by rushing blood to the injury site - this is why your tweaked ankle swells up. Your body think something bad is happening, so it wants to fix it, and it needs blood and stuff to do it. But there isn't anything bad happening - sports injuries happen once and stop. But your body swells up anyways, which can cause all kinds of problems and slows healing - stupid body! So we slow things down by icing the area down which reduces circulation.

Truthy aphorism: every minute of delay to the cold adds one hour of healing time. A 30 minute ride home adds a day of hurting. Best to ice it first, then ride home.

Step 4: Semi-clever Ways to Get Cold

Remember, early ice is key:

If you're driving home from a game, limp into a fast food joint and ask for a bag of ice. If you're at a tournament, pack a cooler with ice in it for the sideline. If you're hiking, dunk it in a cool stream or pack snow around it. The key is to get the temperature down early.

That all said, once you're home, there's a really easy way to slap cold on something: FROZEN CORN. It's the bomb. Buy a big bag, but don't open it. It'll pack around any shape, doesn't melt and won't rot or get weird if you reuse it. For best results, don't let it thaw completely - if you do, you'll have to smash it a little the next time you use it.

I've used a variety of proper medical products, and I have to say the frozen corn works the best. The gel packs are often a little skinny and get warm more quickly than the corn. Ice is a mess to pack and eventually dumps 1 degree water into your lap - cold!

IMPORTANT: Don't freeze your skin. Put a towel or t-shirt between your skin and the cold pack (the shirt will get plenty cold after a minute). Move the cold around a little, and generally don't strap it on tight with an ace wrap.

For big injuries or all over intense soreness, there's the ultimate option: ice bath. That's right: tub full of icewater. Generally, ten minutes in, ten minutes out, repeat up to an hour. If you don't want to go full icebath, a cold-tap bath in most places is pretty good too. This will do wonders for overuse issues from a hard workout.

Step 5: RICE It

OK, you're home and you've got a minor sports injury. The standard treatment guide is RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation.

Rest is obvious, but often ignored: don't make it worse.

Ice, compression and elevation are all ways to reduce inflammation. Keep it cold as much as possible (cold shower, cold packs, ice bath), and then prop a limb up to heart level. If you've got something like a funky ankle, you can gently wrap it up in an ace wrap (never cut off downstream circulation) and apply cold to the outside. The idea is to slow down the rush of blood to the injury.

Step 6: Vitimin I

Take the painkiller ibuprofen (brand name: Motrin). This is more for controlling inflammation than pain. Some athletes take mega-doses of ibuprofen, but this is a bad idea - it can screw up your kidneys. Stick to bottle dosage, but keep taking it for several days.

Tylenol or aspirin do not control inflammation, and should be avoided by athletes. Aspirin is a blood thinner and can contribute to swelling, making an injury worse.

Step 7: After 24 to 48 Hours

After a day or two (opinion on exact timing varies), you can stop aggressively controlling inflammation.

Continue to rest the injury and take ibuprofen at every meal.

For muscle injuries (typically: legs, arms, back, groin), you now want to encourage circulation which aids repair to the tissue. The best way to do this is heat. Use a hot pad and follow the warnings on the package. Hot baths can also work wonders. For sore muscles, heat will feel amazingly good, but don't do it until after 24 hours have passed or you can contribute to swelling and do damage.

For joint or tendon injuries (typically: elbows, knees, hands, feet), heat won't help and may make it worse by increasing inflammation. Joints don't repair the way muscles do, so increasing circulation isn't a good idea. Joints pretty much only get inflamed. If a joint continues to hurt, keep icing it. Tendonitis (including carpal) is the same: skip the heat.

Step 8: OK, Now What?

If the problem's still there after a couple days, you gotta talk to a medical professional. Sorry kids, the internet can't fix everything. But for most dings and tweaks, a little early care can get you back into game shape more quickly than you would otherwise.