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Soft Tissue Injuries & Types

Soft tissue injuries are exactly what they sound like: injuries to the soft tissues inside your body. These include muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Depending on the severity and the type of the injury, they can be more or less serious. For example, a minor bruise on your thigh will typically clear up on its own, with only a small amount of discomfort. Oh the other hand, as sports fans know well, a torn ACL requires surgery, and can sideline you for a year or more.

Soft tissue injuries can result from a variety of causes. Slips, trips, and falls are often at fault. But they can also result from overexertion, overstretching, or twisting. Here, we’ll break down several different types of soft tissue injury. Then, we’ll talk about first aid and treatment.

Sprains

A sprain means a partial tear of a ligament. Ligaments are stretchy, fibrous tissue bands that connect different bones together. They’re found in every joint in your body, and keep your skeleton both stable and flexible.
Sprains typically result from twisting or sudden wrenching on a joint. The most common type of sprain is an ankle sprain, which happens when one of the ankle ligaments is overstretched. That said, wrist and knee sprains are also common. Typically, sprains will heal on their own. But if the ligament is completely torn, surgery may be required to repair the injury.

Strains

A strain is another type of partial tear. However, it affects muscles or tendons, which are similar to ligaments, but connect muscles to bones. They’re generally caused by overexertion or overstretching. As with sprains, most strains will heal on their own. But if a muscle or tendon is totally torn, surgery is generally required.

Contusions

A contusion is just a fancy medical term for a bruise. Contusions are generally caused by blunt force trauma. When you fall or are hit by an object or person, damage to your soft tissue may occur. This damage causes internal bleeding inside the tissue, which results in swelling and discoloration. Minor bruises are painful, but don’t require medical intervention. That said, serious contusions deep in the tissue may require medical attention.

Bursitis

Bursitis is a condition that affects the bursa, which are fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions between your bones and other soft tissues. When this tissue becomes inflamed, it can be painful, and can limit your range of movement. Bursitis is generally caused by constant overuse, but direct trauma can also cause the bursa to become enflamed. In addition, it can also be caused by infections.

Bursitis generally affects major joints such as the knees, hips, angles, elbows, or shoulders. Typical treatment involves resting the joint, applying compression, and taking anti-inflammatory drugs. If it’s caused by trauma, ice can be used to reduce initial swelling. If bursitis does not clear up on its own, injections may be required. In addition, if it’s caused by an infection, you may need to take a course of antibiotics.

Tendonitis

Tendonitis is similar in many ways to bursitis, but it affects your tendons instead of your bursa. Typically, tendonitis is a result from repetitive stress. It most commonly affects the wrists, elbows, and knees, but it can affect any joint in the body, including your hands and feet. Oftentimes, tendonitis is named for a sport or activity. For example, tennis elbow is tendonitis in the elbow caused by constantly hitting a tennis ball. Carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by constant hand use, is similar to tendonitis, but it also involves other complications such as pressure on nerves and arteries.

Mild tendonitis can be treated by resting the joint, applying compression, and taking anti-inflammatory drugs. If it’s been caused by acute trauma, ice can also be used to reduce initial swelling. If the tendonitis persists, therapists may recommend exercise to stretch and strengthen the tendons, which can help prevent re-injury. If the tendonitis is chronic, a doctor may prescribe steroid injections to reduce pain and swelling.

Soft Tissue Injury First Aid

There are two rules of thumb for treating soft tissue injuries. Thankfully, they’re easy to remember. The first is called the “RICE” method, which involves four steps.

  • The first step is Rest. Simply put, avoid using the joint or muscle that has become injured. If you can, take a day off work to allow your body to begin recovery.
  • The second step is Ice. Applying ice to the injury can help reduce initial swelling. Apply the ice in short intervals for about the first 20 minutes after the injury. Avoid applying the ice directly to your skin. Use a light cloth or paper towel to keep it separate.
  • The third step is Compression. Wrapping a bandage around the joint or muscle will help prevent further swelling.
  • The final step is Elevation. Elevating the injured area above your heart will reduce blood flow, which will keep swelling down.

The second rule of thumb is called the “no HARM” protocol. These rules tell you what you should not do for the first 72 hours after a soft tissue injury.

  • H is short for Heat. Applying heat to the injury will increase blood flow, worsening the swelling.
  • A is short for Alcohol. Alcohol is a natural blood thinner, which increases blood flow and worsens swelling. It also dulls your ability to feel pain, so you might not know if you’re aggravating the injury.
  • R is short for Re-injury. Simply put, you don’t want to aggravate the injury. So, for example, if you sprained your knee, try to avoid walking.
  • M is short for Massage. Massage might sound like a nice way to relieve pain and improve flexibility. But it can also increase blood flow, worsening the swelling.

Treatment of Soft Tissue Injuries

Most soft tissue injuries will improve on their own. But the Mayo clinic recommends seeing a doctor if severe pain continues for longer than 24 hours. A doctor can diagnose the problem and recommend a course of treatment. Because soft tissues don’t display well on an X-ray, an MRI scan is usually required to assess the full extent of the injury.

Once the diagnosis has been made, the course of treatment can vary depending on the severity of the injury. Treatment can include wearing a brace, receiving steroid injections, and physical therapy. In the case of severe tears, surgery may be required.

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