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Why is There Swelling After an Injury

Why Is There Swelling After an Injury?

by Tara Hackney, PT, DPT, OCS, KTTPLeave a Comment

Most of us have had an instance where we stepped funny and twisted our ankle or knee, maybe stretched our shoulder too far, or tripped and injured our wrist. These are examples of an acute injury. Acute injuries are usually the result of a single traumatic event. This is in contrast to a chronic injury that occurs with repetition and over time. Swelling is a common occurrence after injury. Swelling is a normal reaction to injury; however, the swelling reaction is excessive sometimes. Let’s look at what happens when your body has swelling after an injury.

Why Does Swelling Occur?

After an injury, the body identifies the injured area and sends many white blood cells to the area to start the healing work. This reaction is also associated with extra blood flow to the area, which can cause heat and redness. This increased fluid in the area causes swelling and thus pain. Extra fluid in the area can affect the nerves in the area of injury, also contributing to pain. These are all part of a normal inflammatory response to injury.

Timeline for What Happens after an Injury?

Injury to tissue → white blood cells sent to the area → increased blood flow to the area as blood carries the white blood cells → redness over area → swelling present → feels warm to touch

The initial reaction occurs within minutes, with swelling appearing over several hours after injury. Acute swelling is usually short-lived and lasts a few days.

Is Swelling Good or Bad?

As mentioned, swelling is a normal response to injury. With swelling, you also usually have limitations in the range of motion of the joint, tenderness to touch and decreased strength. Swelling can be protective after injury by preventing us from using the area to allow time for healing. For example, if you sprain your ankle playing soccer and it is swollen and painful, you are less likely to try to go for a run, possibly leading to further injury. Too much swelling or large amounts of swelling for a long duration can become detrimental to healing. Prolonged inflammation and pain can lead to decreased ability to activate the muscles and eventual weakness or muscle atrophy. Chronic swelling can also lead to decreased flexibility in the tissues, which can lead to an increased risk of injury.

What Can I Do to Decrease Swelling?

The P.R.I.C.E. method is the go-to course of treatment after acute injury.

  • Protection– protect from further damage. This can mean possibly using a brace or wrap or resting the injured area. If it is a lower-body injury, this may also mean not putting weight on that area and using crutches to help you walk.
  • Rest– Rest to avoid prolonged irritation to the area. This can mean not moving the body in a painful way. In the acute phase, you can move the injured area as long as it is in a pain-free range.
  • Ice– Ice to control pain and swelling. For the first 72 hours, ice can be used for 15-20 minutes. no more than every hour. Make sure to place a barrier between your skin and the ice pack such as a pillowcase or towel to protect the skin. Do not use heat in the first 72 hours.
  • Compression– Compression is used for support and to control the swelling. Compression can be an ace wrap or a brace.
  • Elevation– Elevation can help decrease the initial swelling. Try to rest the injured area above heart level if you can.

When Can I Return to My Activities?

Generally, it is not recommended to return to sports until the swelling is gone. You should be able to perform all your sports skills, running, jumping, kicking, and throwing, without increasing pain or swelling before you attempt a return to competition. A physical therapist can also assist in recovery after injury and determining when you can return to play.

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The Athletico blog is an educational resource written by Athletico employees. Athletico bloggers are licensed professionals who abide by the code of ethics outlined by their respective professional associations. The content published in blog posts represents the opinion of the individual author based on their expertise and experience. The content provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice and should not be relied on for making personal health decisions.


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About the Author:
Tara Hackney, a physical therapist in Marion, IA, enjoys working with all patient types, especially gymnasts, cheerleaders, and dancers. She is the prominent blogger for Athletico's Gymnastic/Cheer Program. With an orthopedic specialization and training in dry needling and Graston technique, Tara hopes to answer your questions about injuries and injury prevention in an easy-to-understand manner. She hopes to ease fears surrounding pain and injuries, address concerns about recovery, and provide tips to prevent injury. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her dog, reading, and watching her nephews play sports.

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