I’m sure we have all experienced inflammation at some point in our life. Whether it was from a bad ankle sprain in a high school football game, a sore knee after a day of skiing, the inevitable shin against the box jump, or a toddler head butt to the eye (I might know from experience), we’ve all been there. But the question is, how long should you experience inflammation after injury?
In the context of physical therapy, this blog post will focus on joint inflammation. Inflammation is our body’s response to tissue trauma, and it’s a normal part of the healing process. When tissue injury occurs, numerous substances are released by the injured tissues. This causes the surrounding tissues to swell, which is why your joint looks visibly larger and fluid-filled. The “Acute” phase typically lasts 1-3 days and is characterized by five classic signs: heat, redness, swelling, pain, and loss of function. The inflammatory process activates a response of proteins to restore that tissue back to its normal state. Depending on the severity of injury, this process can last anywhere from 3 days-1 month. Beyond that point, inflammation is said to become chronic and can last several months, which can lead to further tissue damage and functional deficits.
If you know when and how the injury occurred, it’s best to treat initial inflammation with RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation). As your pain subsides, you can re-introduce activities and movements that do not aggravate your pain or increase the inflammation. As the inflammation resolves, you should have no difficulty returning to your normal activity level. If the inflammation is not improving or getting worse, you may need to seek medical advice. This could mean you have a more severe musculoskeletal injury like a ligament/muscle/tendon tear, or you are one of those stubborn athletes (like me) who refuse to modify your activity level after injury. But beware, if you do not allow the tissue to heal, inflammation can become chronic and can lead to further tissue damage and inability to do what you love. A physical therapist can help guide you down the path of appropriate return to activity and instruct you in a rehabilitation program to repair the injured tissue.
Final disclaimer: If you cannot relate your inflammation directly to an activity or injury, it’s best to contact a health care professional for further evaluation as inflammation can also be a symptom of a more severe, systemic medical condition.
I am always here to answer questions or point you in the direction of an appropriate health care professional. Here’s to a few less box jump injuries and toddler head butts in the future!
Kristen Valentin, PT, DPT
Cactus Sport and Spine, P.C.
8000 S. Lincoln St. #6