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Swelling: Why the Body Reacts to Injury This Way and How to Treat It

March 18, 2024

Swelling: Why the Body Reacts to Injury This Way and How to Treat It

Almost everyone who’s played a sport, been on their feet all day, or even just tripped over a loose cord has been there: ankle swelling.  It may seem like this natural reaction to an injury in the foot or ankle is over the top.  Why does the body react this way?  Below, you’ll find the answer, along with some at home swelling treatment options.

What causes swelling after injury?

You turn your ankle after stepping in a hole by mistake, and a few hours later it has almost doubled in size.  Why?  A healthy body recognizes an injury and sends a ton of white blood cells to the area to start working on repairs.  Swelling is often accompanied by redness and heat.  This is due to the extra blood flow in the injured area.  Once you hurt yourself, your body starts working overtime to get everything back to normal as soon as possible.

Is swelling always a good thing?

If you hurt yourself, especially your feet or ankles, it is natural that those areas begin to swell.  This is the body’s way of fixing the problem.  However, that does not mean swelling is always a good thing.  If ankle swelling lasts too long, it can become chronic.  Chronic swelling leads to an inability to use the muscles in the injured area.  In an extreme circumstance, this can lead to muscle atrophy.

Think of it like this: the body makes your foot or ankle swell to heal it, but also to keep you off of it.  Walking around with a twisted ankle isn’t fun.  If you go too long without putting weight on your foot, the muscles there become weak from disuse.  This is why it is important to treat injuries that lead to swelling.

How can I treat swelling at home?

Most swelling treatment can be done at home.  The vast majority of injuries will heal and the swelling will dissipate after a few days.  If you have prolonged swelling or if it gets gradually worse instead of better, see a doctor.

First, you want to protect yourself from further injury.  This can mean immobilizing your ankle with a brace or bandage, or even just staying off your feet for a while.  Rest is very important for injuries that cause swelling.  Movement is essential, but anything that causes further pain should be avoided, especially in the first three days.

Next, you will want to ice your ankle swelling.  Apply ice for 20 minutes every hour for the first three days of your injury.  Leaving the ice on longer can actually increase swelling.  Don’t put ice or especially chemical ice packs directly against your skin, as this can cause frostbite.  Instead, use a washcloth or other small towel to create a barrier.  Never apply heat to a swollen body part in the first 72 hours after injury, as this will make the swelling worse.

Compression can also help reduce swelling.  Ask a doctor or athletic trainer how to wrap an ace bandage in the best way to decrease swelling.  Finally, you should elevate your injury above heart level as much as possible.  This prompts swelling to flow back into the body rather than staying stuck in your extremities.

Visit BASS Primary Care for fast, expert advice

Is your injury still swollen after a week or more of at home swelling treatment?  If so, you can head to BASS Primary Care for a diagnosis.  Most patients are in and out within an hour.  Call (925) 962-9120 to schedule an appointment, or just walk in any weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

At BASS Primary Care Walk-in Clinic, it's Your Health, Your Schedule.