Injuries often present the same way at first — with pain, swelling, limited range of motion, and bruising. So how can you tell if you just need to prop up your limb with some ice or take a trip to the local urgent care?
Any lingering pain, swelling, limited range of motion, and significant bruising are enough to seek medical attention, advises Rashida White-McCrimmon, MD, an emergency medicine physician for CityMD. She tells us what signs to look out for after an injury, when it’s time to visit the doctor, and what you can do at home to get some relief.
Differences between a sprain, strain, tear, and fracture
The symptoms of fractures, tears, sprains, and strains are often similar. If you are ever unsure if you need medical attention, it is always best to get checked out, says Dr. Rashida White-McCrimmon.
- Sprains and strains happen when the ligament or muscle is stretched or pulled. “Both strains and sprains involve mild tears,” she says. “A strain involves tears to muscle fibers, while sprains involve tears to one or more ligaments of a joint.”
- Tears are more serious than sprains or strains and occur when tissue in the ligament, muscle, or tendon is ripped more aggressively. With tears, you might hear or feel a “popping” sensation at the time of the injury, explains Dr. White-McCrimmon. If it’s a more significant tear, you will have sudden, severe pain and notice swelling and weakness in the region. If the tear is in the joint, it could also result in the inability to flex or extend.
- Fractures mean there is a break in the bone. “Fractures may be associated with a visible deformity and the inability to bear weight. In the case of an open fracture, there will be an open wound in the area of injury.”
When you should go to the doctor right away
If you have what Dr. White-McCrimmon calls “hard signs of more significant injury,” you should head to urgent care immediately for treatment. These symptoms include:
- Obvious deformities
- Inability to bear weight
- Decreased mobility of a joint
- Open wounds associated with an injury
- Color change
How to treat a sprain, strain, tear, or fracture immediately
When you get injured, Dr. White-McCrimmon advises you to follow these steps as soon as possible. “Early treatment like R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) can help mitigate the swelling and pain associated with an injury,” she says.
- Step One: Rest. Stop any activity and allow the injured area to rest.
- Step Two: Ice. Apply an ice pack for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours during the first 24 to 48 hours after your injury. Cover the ice with a light, absorbent towel to help prevent frostbite.
- Step Three: Compression. “In cases of minor sprains, a properly placed ACE bandage wrap can help limit swelling and reduce pain early on. A bandage placed too tightly may cause numbness or throbbing, which should be avoided,” explains Dr. White-McCrimmon.
- Step Four: Elevation. Prop the injury up on some pillows so it is above, or at least even with, your heart.
- Step Five: Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. As long as you do not have any contraindications, Dr. White-McCrimmon recommends taking NSAIDs like Advil, Motrin, or Aleve as directed, which can further reduce inflammation and alleviate pain after an injury.
What to expect when you seek medical attention
Your physician will gather some history and perform a physical exam. If they suspect a fracture, they will order an X-ray for further evaluation. For minor injuries, you’ll be treated with conservative measures, including R.I.C.E. and pain control as needed.
“Good discharge instructions are given to help a patient determine when they should return for further evaluation or see a specialist, in the case of worsened or persistent symptoms,” says Dr. White-McCrimmon.
They may recommend you use a splint, cane, or crutches. This will help you rest and avoid bearing any additional weight on the injury. Your physician can also arrange for an expedited orthopedic follow-up with a practitioner at Summit Health. In the case of an emergency, such as an open fracture, they will arrange for an immediate orthopedic referral or transfer to the closest hospital.