Care and Pain Relief for Bumps, Bruises, Sprains

Is it a Sprain or Strain?

A young woman suffers a sprain or strain in her wrist from bowling.

Strains happen when you injure a muscle or tendon -- the fibrous tissue that attaches muscle to bone. Sprains occur when you hurt a ligament, which connects the end of one bone to another. For both injuries, the answer is often RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation.


A woman rests with her feet elevated after an injury.

Rest is one key to help heal everyday strains and sprains. Depending on where the injury is, you may need to keep weight off it for a day or two. Crutches and canes can help in some situations. If your sprain or strain turns out to be severe, you could need physical therapy. Your doctor can assess your injury and advise the best treatment plan. In any case, ease back into activity slowly.


A man applies an ice pack to an injury on his arm.

Ice helps prevent swelling and pain. So for the first 24 hours after a minor injury, apply a cold compress for 20-30 minutes, then remove it for 20-30 minutes. A pack of frozen peas works well. Or place ice cubes in a plastic bag, then wrap the bag in a towel (to avoid frostbite). Don't apply heat in the first 24 hours of an injury. It may make swelling worse. Later, heat can be used to relax muscles and ease pain.


A nurse applies a compression bandage to a man's ankle to keep the swelling down.

Compression of an injury can help keep swelling down. For the first day or two after an injury, wrap a sprain or strain in compression bandages. Your doctor can give you advice on which compression aid to use and how to apply it.


A woman elevates her injured foot.

Elevating your injury helps reduce swelling, so try to keep the injured area higher than your heart, if possible. Gravity helps reduce the swelling and relieve pressure. If you've taken every RICE precaution and still have pain with noticeable swelling after a couple of days, call your doctor.

Also call your doctor if pain is severe, you cannot put weight on a leg or ankle, or if there is any numbness, weakness, or unstable joints.

Other Sprain and Strain Treatments

Photo of woman with an immobilization device on her foot.

Sometimes an injured limb needs to be immobilized with a device such as a splint or cast. Your doctor will oversee the device, because prolonged use can lead to stiffness and loss of range of motion. To recover from a sprain or strain, you may need to do exercises at home or work with a physical therapist. In some cases, you may need surgery to repair the damage.

Soothing Bruises

Photo of a bruise.

Bruises happen when impact breaks small blood vessels below your skin and blood seeps into tissues. You can help bruises heal by applying a cold compress right after the injury, then elevating the site above your heart, if you can. Bruises usually last about two weeks and change color from red/purplish to yellowish as they heal. If a bruise is severe or swells painfully, see a doctor.

Soothing Black Eyes

A boy applies a cold compress to his black eye.

Leave the steak in the fridge. You don't need potentially bacteria-laden raw meat to soothe a black eye. Instead, apply a cold compress or towel-wrapped ice pack for 20 minutes every hour while you're awake. Make sure to see your doctor to check for the presence of a serious injury.

Relieving Head Bumps

A young girl applies a cold compress to sooth a bump on her head.

The best way to reduce the swelling and pain of most minor head bumps is with a cold compress or ice pack. Get medical help immediately for a bump if there's any bleeding from the head or face; severe headache or vomiting; unconsciousness; slurred speech; vision problems or pupils of uneven size; breathing issues; or convulsions.

Medication Pain Relief

A prescription bottle of pain medication.

Chances are good your doctor will prescribe rest, ice, compression, and elevation for a minor bump, bruise, sprain, or strain. However, if you have lingering pain, talk to your doctor about over-the-counter or prescription relief that may include pills, patches, or assistive devices.

Assistive Devices: Crutches/Braces

A doctor helps an injured senior woman on crutches.

If you can't put weight on a sprained or strained knee or ankle, your doctor may suggest a cane, crutch, or brace to help as you heal. If you need a brace or assistive walking device, get your doctor's advice on how to use them.



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  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  • American Medical Association, Handbook of First Aid and Emergency Care, Revised Edition, Random House, 2000.
  • Duke University Health System.
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  • The Nemours Foundation.
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