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How Long Should Swelling Last After an Injury?

Mar 24, 2022

by Ethan Anderson PT, DPT, ATC | Peoria

Whether you’re a professional athlete or a senior trying to slow down and relax, injuries do happen. When they do, swelling is almost always sure to follow. In most cases, swelling clears up after a few days, but what happens when it doesn’t? How long should swelling last after an injury before you should become concerned or alert your doctor?

After you suffer an injury, swelling usually worsens over the first two to four days. It can then last for as long as three months as the body attempts to heal itself. If the swelling lasts longer than this, your physical therapist or doctor may need to take a closer look to determine the cause of the delayed healing.

What causes swelling after an injury?

While most people become alarmed when the body shows signs of swelling, it’s important to remember that this is a natural part of the healing process. When swelling occurs, it’s just the body requesting reinforcements to speed up the healing process. Without swelling, the body would have a difficult time determining what areas need repairing and the extent to which they do.

Even so, swelling can become excessive, can last for too long, or can lead to other complications. Your physical therapist can help you determine what symptoms and severity are just normal parts of the process and when to be concerned.

When should someone seek medical attention?

Not all injuries require medical attention, but athletes and seniors may require it more than others. Athletes need injuries addressed immediately to ensure they are able to return to practice as soon as possible. Seniors may require immediate attention because the body becomes less resilient as it ages.

Regardless of age or hobbies, if the injured area becomes painful, warm to the touch, or red, this could be the sign of an infection. It could also be symptoms of deep vein thrombosis. It is crucial to your health that you contact your physical therapist or primary care physician if you notice any of these signs.

Person elevating leg injury on couch

What can patients do to reduce swelling?

Most people immediately turn to ice to numb the pain and reduce swelling after an injury, but does it really work? Ethan Anderson says yes. “Perhaps more effective than ice is the process of elevating the injured body part to allow gravity to pull some of the fluid away from the area,” he adds.

Here are some additional tips to reduce swelling:

  • Move the joints above and below the injury site, so it can help improve lymphatic drainage, as noted by Casley-Smith in 1997.
  • Use short stretch compression garments to reduce tissue edema and swelling.
  • Apply heat after the first few days to improve the mobility of the lymphatic system and improve swelling.
  • Try to avoid putting weight or pressure on the affected area.

Are there any precautions injured persons should take at home?

When applying ice, be mindful of leaving the ice in one spot or falling asleep with it on the affected area. The length of time that you should leave the ice varies depending on the body part and the person. An acronym to describe the “phases” of applying ice to an injured area is CBAN. It stands for cold, burn, ache, numb. First, the area will feel cold, then it will start to burn a little bit, then it will get achy, and finally, it will go numb. Once you get the numb feeling, it is time to remove the ice, regardless of the length of time it has been on your body.

There are some over-the-counter medications injured persons can use to reduce pain and swelling, but it might be wise to speak to a doctor first. For example, pain medications are discouraged for some injuries within the first 24 hours of injury because they can increase the risk of bleeding. Pain medications can also negatively impact people with existing health conditions, such as the following:

  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Stomach ulcers
  • High blood pressure

How can a physical therapist help reduce swelling?

Chances are that waiting six months for swelling to go away is not your preferred method of handling an injury. Working with a physical therapist can help your body heal at a faster rate and can reduce the risk of complications while healing.

A physical therapist can perform a technique known as Manual Lymphatic Drainage and other skilled manual therapy techniques. “A 1999 study by Casas and DePoli showed that these techniques can shorten the time to resolve post-surgical edema and tissue fibrosis to 6 weeks to 3 months, down from 9 to 18 months.

At Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy, we help our patients achieve a full recovery and get their lives back on track. Our physical therapists have served Phoenix and the surrounding communities for more than 20 years and look forward to serving you. Request an appointment today.

Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapist Ethan Anderson PT, DPT, ATC, CAFS is from our Peoria clinic.

Ethan joined the Foothills family in 2016 after completing his degree as a Doctor of Physical Therapy at the University of Montana, Missoula. Ethan is a dedicated father, husband, and Physical Therapist who strives to help all of his patients and clients, both young and old, reach and exceed their rehabilitation and fitness goals.

A former NCAA D–I All-Conference Track and Field Athlete and retired Firefighter, Ethan brings an immense drive for success and service in all he does both in the clinic and in the community where he volunteers his time to his church as well as serving as Team Physical Therapist for multiple local high schools. His background as a college athlete, as well as a Certified Athletic Trainer, allows him to connect with his patients and clients on an intimate level regarding their injuries physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Some of Ethan’s other passions include being a handyman around the house, anything that is “Built Ford Tough”, motorcycles, hunting, and fishing. Ethan is thrilled to lead Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy – Agua Fria and continue his service in the West Valley.

Ethan Anderson

by Ethan Anderson
PT, DPT, ATC | Peoria

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