Soft tissue injury advice

Soft tissues include ligaments, muscles and tendons. These soft areas of the body can become injured after a trauma like a strain, sprain or overload.

This guide is designed to help you, and your body, recover after an injury.

After an injury your body works hard to repair, recover and renew the affected area. The process starts with inflammation which often causes:

  • pain in and around the area
  • swelling
  • mild heat
  • redness

There are a few things you can do to help this process and get you back to your usual activities.

Pacing your activity levels

Generally, the first few days are the worst with regards to pain and limitation of movement. Initially, you should listen to your body and adapt your life to suit. For example you could use a walking aid to help you get around, or prop your arm up to help a sore shoulder.

Too much rest can slow down your recovery so, as soon as you can, start moving and using the affected area.

Remember a little activity is better than nothing. Continue to stay within acceptable pain limits but remember you don’t need to be pain free. Aim to do a little bit more each day or every few days.

How to tell if you’re exercising at the right level

This guide can help you to understand if you’re pacing your daily activities at the right level as you build your movement levels up. It’ll also let you see how much pain or discomfort is acceptable.

It can be helpful to rate your pain out of 10 (0 being no pain 10 being the worst pain you have ever had), for example:

  • 0 to 3 – minimal pain
  • 4 to 5 – acceptable pain
  • 6 to 10 – excessive pain

Pain during activity

Aim to keep your pain within a rating of 0 to 5. If your pain gets above this level, you can change the level of activity by:

  • reducing the number of times you do a movement
  • reducing the pace of an activity
  • increasing rest time between activities

Pain after activity

Activity shouldn’t make your existing pain worse overall. Increasing activity can lead to increased discomfort as your body gets used to regaining your activity levels. This kind of pain should ease quickly and your pain should be no worse the morning after.

Walking aids/supports

It can be helpful to use supports or walking aids like a walking boot or crutches in the early stages of an injury. This can make you more comfortable and help you get back to your usual activities.

Unless you’re advised by healthcare professional to use these aids for a specific time period, try and become less reliant on them as time goes on.

Anti-inflammatory medication

Traditionally medications like ibuprofen, diclofenac and naproxen were recommended for all soft tissue injuries. Evidence now suggests they may have limited value. In some cases, they may even slow down the healing process if they’re taken too early in your recovery from a soft tissue injury.

If pain relief is your main concern your doctor or pharmacist can help work out what medication is right for you.

Applying ice

The use of ice is still recommended if swelling is a major problem. Remember to never place ice directly on your skin. Use a barrier, like a towel, to protect your skin from a burn.

How long you use ice as a treatment can depend on the area of injury. However, generally apply ice for up to 15 minutes and leave a few hours between treatments.

You should stop treating the area with ice and seek advice from a health professional if:

  • you notice an increase in redness, discolouration or blistering of the skin
  • the swelling continues to worsen
  • the area becomes hot and red
  • you are unable to weight bear or take any pressure on the area

If you have any issues with circulation or sensation, you shouldn’t use ice as a treatment for swelling.

Compression and elevation

Compression and elevation are useful ways to control significant swelling. If using tape, bandages or a tubigrip, make sure it fits well but isn’t too tight. Your pharmacist can recommend the best type of compression for you.

Elevation can also be useful, especially if you’re able to place the affected area above your heart. For example, keep your leg or arm elevated and supported on pillows.

Following an injury

As your symptoms start to settle over the next few days, weeks and months, gradually introduce movement, strength and functional activities into your routine.

These things help to reduce stiffness, pain and swelling. More importantly, they provide your body with the vital information and stimulation it needs to repair, restore and renew itself.

Further information on how to get moving after an injury.

Last updated:
29 September 2022