by Dr. Long Van
Soft tissue injury (STI) is something people certainly want to avoid, but it can happen anytime—be it a minor or a major injury. It occurs when we abuse or have accidents that affect our muscles, ligaments or tendons.
Most soft tissue injuries are the consequence of sudden unforeseen movements such as falling and stumbling, or suddenly using parts of your body that you never have such as when you start playing a sport you’ve never played before. They can likewise happen from inordinate abuse or constant use of already exhausted body structures—particularly muscles and tendons—such as when you push your body exercises beyond your limits when you are already fatigued.
Common soft tissue injuries include ankle sprain, calf strain, hamstring strain, and back strain.
When you have soft tissue injury, you usually experience immediate pain and then swelling. You may also experience instability, stiffness and bruising.
The rate of healing depends on the extent of the injury. Like a break in the skin, it will need to go through stages of healing for it to be considered fully healed. But keep in mind that it may never go back to a hundred percent normal.
Recovery Time and Stages of Healing
A soft tissue injury allows for up to three stages of healing, depending on the gravity of the injury. Recovery time varies from between one to more than four weeks, again depending on the intensity of the injury.
With soft tissue injury, you may be in need of serious medical attention if you experience the following1:
—A popping or cracking sound at the time of injury
—Inability to put weight on the injured part
—Unusual deformity in the injured area
—Pain in surrounding bone structures
—Numbness or pins and needles
However, make no presumptions. As we always say, ALWAYS CONSULT A DOCTOR. Recovery times can also depend on your age, general health and occupation. If you are not sure of the nature or extent of your injury, contact a physiotherapist for advice.
Stage 1: Acute swelling and pain—Day 1-7
While inflammation or swelling—usually with pain and redness—makes us nervous and is great cause for concern, acute or fresh inflammation actually helps repair tissues. An inflammation is the result of a “vascular and cellular response that releases chemicals” required to heal an injured part of the body, and allows for more blood to flow towards the area.2 During this stage, the R.I.C.E. protocol—rest, ice, compression and elevation—is advised to decrease pain and swelling. Consult a doctor or pharmacist for pain relief medication, if needed.
Rest – means rest. If a certain movement or activity causes intense pain, don’t do it.
Ice – Use an ice pack for 15-20 minutes every 3-4 hours. Make sure to wrap the ice in a towel or cloth to avoid cold burns.
Compression – Firmly cover the affected area, including the joint, with a bandage.
Elevation – Raise the affected area above the heart level. This helps reduce the swelling.
Stage 2: Reduction of swelling and pain, regeneration of damaged tissues—Day 4 up to 6 weeks
As swelling goes down, the body begins to repair the damaged tissue by laying down new collagen fibers in the form of scar tissue. At this time, very likely the pain goes down, too. You start feeling better but still need to take extra care because the new collagen strands are weaker than normal tissues and can’t take regular stress. Focus on regaining range of motion and exercises that help re-align the collagen fibers.
Stage 3: Return to normal function and activities, 2-3 weeks up to months or years
This is also called the remodeling phase where the focus is strengthening and organizing the collagen fibers. Activities and exercises need to focus on regaining full range of motion and improving strength. There is need to add stress to the tissues in order to help realign the fibers along the proper lines of stress.3