Sprain and Strain Treatments

Understanding the "RICE" Method for Acute Sprains

If you have a  sprain or strain, you may be wondering about the best treatments. Is it ice? Is it heat? What else can you do? It's currently thought that the best treatment for a sprain or strain is with the "RICE" method, an acronym which is helpful to remember when you have an acute injury. It's important to note that if you are unsure of the severity of your sprain or strain, you should talk to your doctor before beginning any treatment or rehabilitation.

"RICE" stands for:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevate

Let's look at these methods in greater detail, along with products that may help you treat the more common injuries such as wrist sprains, twisted ankles, hamstring strains, and groin pulls.

1

Ice treatment is part of the RICE treatment for sprains and strains
Athletes should be familiar with the RICE method of treating acute sprains and strains. nolimitpictures / Getty Images

Ice treatment is most commonly used for "acute" injuries. If you have a recent injury (within the last 48 hours), where swelling is a problem, you should be using ice treatment rather than heat.

Ice packs can help minimize swelling around the injury, and you can make your own if you don't have a commercial ice pack with you.

Ice treatments may also be used for chronic conditions, such as overuse injuries in athletes, in order to control the inflammatory response. If you are using an ice pack for a chronic injury, however, ice the injured area only after activity.  Never ice a chronic injury before activity.

To properly ice an injury, it's usually recommended that the ice is applied for no longer than 15 minutes, and no more frequently than once per hour. Applying ice for too long, or too often, may actually cause problems.

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2

applying ice or heat depends on whether an injury is acute or chronic
Heating pads may be helpful with chronic injuries. David Leahy / Getty Images

Heat treatments should be used for chronic conditions to help relax and loosen tissues, and to stimulate blood flow to the area.

Use heat treatments for chronic injuries, such as overuse injuries, before participating in the activity.

When using heat treatments, be very careful to use a moderate heat for a limited time (be careful of burns). Never leave heating pads or towels on for extended periods or while sleeping.

Heating can also be done before stretching to loosen the body before activity. By heating before your stretch, you will relax the muscles and tendons and may be less likely to injure yourself.

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3

wrist support for wrist sprain
A wrist splint may help support an injured wrist. Yenwen Lu / Getty Images

Support braces can help people who have either had a recent wrist sprain injury or those who tend to injure their wrists easily.

Wrist braces function by providing gentle support for wrist movements. They will not prevent severe injuries, but may help you perform simple activities while rehabilitating from a wrist sprain. Unless the goal is complete immobilization, wrist splints should be removed periodically to ensure the joint remains flexible. Sometimes people wear splints too frequently, leading to stiffness of the joint and weakness of the muscles surrounding the joint.

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4

woman's feet with ankle in black brace
An ankle brace may help those at risk for an ankle sprain. Odilon Dimier/PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections/Getty Images

Ankle braces act in a similar manner to the wrist supports mentioned above. While these will not prevent all injuries, they often help those who tend to be prone to ankle sprains.

Some people prefer the lace-up ankle braces, but many prefer the simplicity of a sleeve-type support. The ankle brace should be snug, but not tight. It needs to be loosened if the toes tingle or become cool.

As with wrist braces, most often these ankle braces should be removed to maintain mobility and work the muscles surrounding the ankle joint. Excessive use of the brace can lead to a weakening of the muscles surrounding the ankle. In young athletes, it's especially important to maintain an ankle exercise routine to prevent dependence on the brace.

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5

knee swelling before applying a compression dressing
The RICE treatment include applying a compression dressing. aabejon / Getty Images

Use compression when elevating an acute sprain or strain. Using an Ace bandage, wrap the area overlapping the elastic wrap by one-half of the width of the wrap. The wrap should be snug, but not cutting off circulation to the extremity. So, if your fingers or toes become cold, blue, or tingle, re-wrap!

Applying compression is most helpful in the very early stages to prevent excessive fluid accumulation, but can also help to squeeze out excess fluid accumulation in the soft-tissues. Some athletes prefer compression garments, such as compression stockings, to help accomplish this goal. 

It's important to make sure the compression dressing is not to tight as to cut off circulation. In addition, compression dressings around the knee should be fairly loose to reduce the risk of developing blood clots, a sometimes very serious complication.

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Rest and Elevation

In addition to ice and compression, rest and elevation is an important part of treating an acute sprain or strain. How long to rest your injury will depend on the severity, but it's important to realize that resuming activity may not only increase pain and swelling, but could raise the risk of suffering another, perhaps even more severe, injury.

Bottom Line on Treating Acute Sprains and Strains

The RICE method for treating acute sprains and strains includes rest, ice, compression, and elevation. This is most effective for injuries within 48 hours. With minor injuries, the RICE method can reduce pain and swelling, and return you to your activities as soon as possible. With more severe injuries, however, it's important to consult your doctor before self-treating.

Certainly, the best treatment is prevention. Making sure to stretch when applicable, taking time to warm up and cool down, and resting an injury until it is healed enough to resume sports, are all effective ways to reduce the chance you will need to use the RICE method in the first place.

Source:

American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Sprains, Strains, and Other Soft Tissue Injuries. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/sprains-strains-and-other-soft-tissue-injuries/

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