How Long After an Injury Should I Wait to Get Care from a Professional?
Unless your injury is truly minor and will heal completely by itself in 2-4 days, the answer is almost always- DON’T WAIT! Evaluating an injury quickly reduces the severity of the injury and speeds healing, and in addition – it saves you money! Here’s why: Inflammation. What’s Really Wrong? Pain Cycles. Compensations.
Injury and Inflammation: 101
When you have any type of injury, some cells are broken open and damaged. This damage releases chemical messengers into the body and to the brain to “send reinforcements” to begin healing the area. Some of these chemical messengers are toxic and irritating- they irritate nerve endings causing pain and can irritate or damage the surrounding tissues. This is a process known as inflammation. Bruising, swelling, pain, redness and heat are all signs that inflammation is occurring.
Overall inflammation is a good thing. It causes nutrients, oxygen, blood and building blocks for new tissue to be sent to the area. The problem is controlling this inflammation.
The body goes into hyper drive! As all of these new products are sent to the area, the lymphatic system (the structures that work like sewers to drain away the “waste” and damaged tissue) can’t keep up. You get one huge traffic jam. As congestion builds, pressure builds up and begins causing damage to the surrounding tissue (this is combined with irritation and damage still occurring from those previously released chemicals). As this damage occurs, more chemical messengers are released. Snowball!!
REASON #1: Stop the inflammation and prevent Secondary Damage.
This is the premise behind RICE: Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate. These are very important to quickly control the inflammation and reduce the secondary damage!
There are also many additional treatment options to reduce inflammation quickly. Kinesiotape, electrical stimulation, lymphatic massage, ART….the list could go on and on. The sooner we address a problem, the less inflammation is allowed to persist. Decreasing inflammation means decreasing secondary damage. Decreasing secondary damage means actually reducing how severe the injury could have been….Following?
REASON #2: What’s Really Wrong?
This one seems obvious, but many serious injuries are often overlooked thinking the injury is something else. Serious injuries may require special treatments, or may actually get worse with incorrectly applied treatments. The longer the big injury goes untreated, the higher the risk of long-term problems and even disability over time.
For example….There are 5 common sites of ankle fractures connected with simple ankle sprains. 1 of the 5 sites isn’t even in the ankle – it’s in the knee! If you aren’t looking for it, it’s likely to be missed. Contrary to popular belief, most people can walk on several of these fractures! There are 6 commonly sprained ligaments in any ankle sprain. Treatment is very, very different depending on the location and severity of fracture or sprain. Three of these common injuries, if left untreated will result in needed surgery- when they could have been corrected simply with early treatment!
Needless to say: A quick exam to rule out the scary stuff is well worth your time and money!
REASON #3: Pain Cycles
Your body is much smarter than most of us give it credit. It actually learns patterns and forms habits. Two of these patterns are pain cycles and compensation patterns.
When chemical messengers irritate your nerve endings and/or become damaged you experience pain. The signal transports up the nerve and “synapses” with the next nerve. It continues “leap frogging” or “synapsing” with each new nerve until it reaches the brain.
Every time a synapse transports information, the connection reinforces. Reinforcing a pain cycle constantly for 3 weeks, 3 months, 3 years, before you decide to do something about it infinitely strengthens it. This is known as a pain cycle.
This is one reason why we may be able to treat an injury completely in one visit immediately after the injury occurs. The same injury may take weeks or months of treatment to respond if the condition has been there a long time. Needless to say, again, a quick evaluation and treatment early on will save you time….and money……in the long run!
REASON #4: Compensations
As I said above, the body is smart! The second type of learning it does with an injury is learning compensations.
How many times have you sprained an ankle only to find your other leg begins to hurt, or your knee, or your back? Your body doesn’t like pain and will do anything to get away from it- even without you knowing. Your gait with change, you will use your arm differently, etc.
These changes, known as compensations increase the amount of strain on other tissues, joints and ligaments. Similar to pain cycles, every time you use the new pattern- that pattern strengthens and overtime, the body forgets how to use “normal” patterns. Compensatory tissues are not designed to withstand the types of forces they are being subject to. Overtime they break down, stop working or cause pain themselves.
Controlling pain quickly and treating an injury appropriately can completely discourage compensations from occurring. The last thing you want to do is spend time, energy, pain and money addressing a second, third or fourth problem all because you didn’t take care of a simple injury to begin with!
You and your body are worth it! In the long run, evaluating and treating an injury quickly and completely saves you a lot of pain and hassle. If you are unsure if an injury needs to be treated, assume that it does. At the very least, you will avoid future injuries and potentially costly treatments and learn something about your body in the process!