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Self-help for common exercise injuries
Pulled muscles
Shin splints

Should you apply heat or ice to an injury?
Should you apply heat or ice to an injury?

The best way to treat exercise injuries to the soft tissues is to follow four steps that are often referred to by the letters R - I - C - E:

REST—Resting the injured area helps reduce pain and swelling and prevents further injury.

ICE—For the first 48 hours after the injury, apply ice for 10 to 20 minutes at a time, every two hours or so. This will help relieve the pain and lessen swelling and bruising. Wrap the ice in a thin towel so you don’t damage your skin. Stop icing when your skin feels numb.

COMPRESSION—Along with ice, compression will help minimize swelling and further injury. When using an elastic bandage, be careful not to wrap it so tightly that it stops circulation.

ELEVATION—Raising the injured body part (above the heart if possible) helps reduce swelling and promotes drainage of accumulated fluid.

Aspirin or ibuprofen can also be used to reduce swelling and pain. After the swelling has gone down (usually about 48 hours), begin applying heat for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, two to three times a day. This will help promote healing, relieve pain, relax muscles and reduce stiffness in the joints.

Whether you’re a newcomer to exercise or you’ve been at it for a long time, you’re at risk of injuries. Although most heal quickly and completely, as we age the damage can be greater and the recovery may be slower. Knowing how to recognize the most common exercise injuries, how to treat them and when to see a doctor will help ensure that you’re not sidelined for long.

Pulled muscles

You’ll know you’ve overstretched a muscle when you feel a sharp pain. But you may not feel the tenderness, swelling or stiffness until later, usually when you wake up the next morning.

What to do: Try the RICE treatment (see sidebar). Also, try not to use the muscle for several days or while pain is still present.

When to see a doctor: If you’re in a lot of pain or the swelling is severe. Your doctor may prescribe a painkiller or recommend using a sling or crutches to help keep you from using the injured area.


Sprains occur when you stretch or tear the ligaments that hold bones together. The ankles, knees and fingers are the most common areas for sprains to occur. You may be able to use the joint somewhat, but it will be painful, tender, swollen and perhaps bruised.

What to do: Try the RICE treatment. After a day or two, start to exercise the joint gently, but try not to overuse the joint or put any weight on it until swelling and pain subside.

When to see a doctor: If the pain or swelling is severe, lasts more than two to three days or you’re unable to walk (in the case of an ankle or a knee sprain). It’s often hard to tell a severe sprain from a broken bone, so X-rays may be necessary.

Shin splints

The term shin splint refers to pain in the front of the leg below the knee. The cause of this type of pain can be one of several injuries, including a muscle tear, swelling in the thin membrane (periosteum) that covers bone surfaces or a stress fracture in one of the two large bones that make up the lower leg (the fibula and tibia). These injuries commonly occur in people who have just started exercising after a period of inactivity, changed their exercise routine or started exercising on a new surface (perhaps harder than the one to which they’re accustomed).

What to do: Stop the activity that’s causing pain and try the RICE treatment. Rest the legs for three to six weeks.

When to see a doctor: If pain is severe or you’re unable to walk. You may have a stress fracture.