The rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) method is part of the standard treatment for sports injuries. The popular treatment is a simple self-care technique that helps reduce swelling, ease pain and speed up healing. One vague thing about the RICE method is the compression part, which involves bandaging an injured area or applying pressure to prevent bleeding or further swelling. However, it can be quite tricky because if the pressure on the injured area is too tight, it can lead to further complications.
You probably have asked yourself just how tight your compression sock or sleeve should be during injury treatment. In this article, we will take a look at what compression is and how to properly apply it in emergency situations or in home remedies.
What is compression?
Compression is the most important aspect of first aid treatment. This can reduce swelling and improve blood flow through the injured part of your body. Compression usually involves wrapping the injured area to prevent swelling. When applying compression, wrap the affected area with an elastic medical bandage (like an ACE bandage).
A simple way to apply compression is to use an elastic bandage and start wrapping it around the knee. Start from below the knee and finish just slightly above it. The bandage should be tight, but it should not stop blood flow past the injury site. Signs that the bandage is too tight can include numbness, tingling and increased pain.
Compression is usually paired with the application of ice to an injury. A homemade ice pack can be wrapped in a cloth or towel and applied to the injury to reduce swelling. Compression is also used during the recovery process in the forms of bandages, supports and tape.
The science behind compression
The goal of compression is to stop hemorrhage and reduce swelling in and around the injured muscle or joint. Compression is applied to limit the amount of edema caused by the flow of fluid from the damaged capillaries into the tissue. Controlling the amount of inflammatory exudate reduces the amount of fibrin and ultimately the production of scar tissue and helps to control the osmotic pressure of the tissue fluid in the injured area.
What are the effects and benefits of compression?
The most significant benefit of compression is the reduction of internal bleeding in the soft tissue surrounding the injury and the reduction of inflammation and swelling. Supportive and specialized types of clothing like shoulder straps are often used by professional athletes to protect themselves from injury during physical activity; compression shorts, shoulder braces, ankle and wrist supports are examples of these.
Active compression helps to enhance blood flow, thus improving the delivery of oxygen to the damaged tissue. The combination of reduced swelling and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the injury site allow for rapid tissue repair and, therefore, an overall faster healing process.
Cold compress and circumferential compress therapy
Basically, compression works hand-in-hand with the rest of the RICE method. When treating swollen shoulders, you can pair compression techniques along with ice. When applied to the injury for a period of 15-20 minutes, the cold temperature of the ice pack causes the blood vessels in the area to tighten. When vessels are constricted, less blood flow moves through them, reducing swelling and pain in the area. Ice is a great treatment option along with rest, compression, stretching and advice from a sports medicine professional.
Cold compresses can help reduce swelling in the shoulder and help numb sharp pain. The standard way to apply a cold compress is to place an ice pack on the injured area for up to 20 minutes and up to five times a day. An ice pack can be anything from a frozen gel pack, ice cubes in a plastic bag or a bag of frozen peas. Wrap the cold pack in a soft towel before placing it on your skin, as extremely cold temperatures can cause damage to your skin.
There are specialized products that are designed for circumferential compression, ones which apply equal amounts of pressure to all parts of the extremity simultaneously. An ice shoulder pack applies this principle, which is why it is best for treating various conditions like rotator cuff injuries, bursitis and post-surgery recovery. Aside from circumferential compression therapy, some shoulder ice packs can also provide cryotherapy and thermotherapy, and they can fit over the entire shoulder joint where users can adjust it for a precise fit.
How to tell if the bandage or ice pack is too tight?
The most important thing to remember when treating an injury with compression is to not wrap the bandage too tightly. You want it to be snug, but not too tight. If it’s too tight, it’ll interrupt blood flow and may actually cause more swelling and pain and less circulation. Some signs that tell you whether a compression bandage or shoulder ice pack is too tight include numbness, worsening pain, tingling, increased swelling and feeling coldness around the area of injury. If the skin below the wrap turns blue or feels cold, numb or tingly, loosen the bandage immediately. If these symptoms don’t disappear right away, seek immediate medical help.
Your doctor may suggest using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen or naproxen) along with the RICE method. These are available over the counter and by prescription. Talk to your doctor about your health history before taking these medications.
Got a question or anything I can help with? My name is Steve Stretton, and I’m the owner and manager at Gelpacks.com. You can drop me a line here. Good luck!