I asked an older patient recently, “What is a bruise?”
She thought about it and said, “I don’t know.”
A bruise is blood, bleeding. Old blood changes color and is reabsorbed by the body as it heals. But where does that blood come from?
Any tissue in the body can bleed. Even a tooth, if broken into the center.
So what is bleeding for MOST bruises?
Muscle. Muscle, muscle, muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia, occasionally bone if broken and internal organs can bleed as well.
Somehow we entirely fail to teach this, at least in the US.
If you fall, or like my mountain biking daughter, hit something, your body will bleed. I tried to train the mountain bike team to carry an ace wrap and use it any time they hit something hard with an extremity. I pretty much failed. Why do I want an ace wrap and why use it immediately?
Trauma or hitting something hard causes bleeding. The more the muscle and tissue bleeds, the more swollen it gets. Usually the peak of bleeding and swelling is at about 48 hours after the injury. By then the body is sending immune system cells and repair cells to fix the trauma. It is swollen, red, hot, inflamed and painful! If we ace wrap our ankle or foot or elbow immediately, the bleeding stops faster. Wrap it, ice and elevate to keep the bleeding down. The torn muscles are held in their normal position, the bleeding stops more quickly, there is less swelling, less redness, inflammation and pain!
Our acronym is RICE:
There are things that you can’t ace wrap: don’t ace wrap your neck or ribs and if it’s bad trauma to the head, neck, chest or abdomon, go to the emergency room! But even then, ice and compression help. First check airway, breathing and circulation, that the heart is beating if you happen on a trauma. But then try to use pressure on bleeding.
Do not put heat on a bruise for that first 48 hours. Why? It bleeds more and swells more. The exception may be if you do much more exercise than usual without a localized injury: hydrate, stay away from alcohol and a hot tub or hot bath may help. The hydration and hot water help the muscles relax and wash out the CK, creatine kinase, the protein from tiny muscle traumas that make us “stiff”.
The I in RICE used to mean ibuprofen as well. However, ibuprofen and aspirin and naprosyn are all blood thinners, so they may help with pain and inflammation, but may make the bruising worse. Acetominophen is not a blood thinner and also doesn’t do as much for inflammation, but it may be a better choice. It does help with pain.
In her third year of mountain bike racing, the Introverted Thinker had a quarter size bruise on her knee after a race.
“Are you going to do anything about that bruise?” I asked.
“No, it’s small.” she said.
Two hours later: “Mom? Would you look at my knee?” Now the bruise is the size of an orange.
“Hmmm. What are you going to do about that?”
“I think I might ace wrap it and ice it and put it up for a while. Where is the ace wrap?”
Good plan. It didn’t get any bigger.
I see the handouts from the emergency room given for back pain and they are terribly misleading. It shows the spine and talks about the discs. 99% of the back pain I see is NOT a disc: it is the six layers of back muscles, and complex web of tendons, muscles and ligaments that hold the spine together and let us move in very complex ways. I pull my Netter Anatomy out daily in clinic and show people the six layers of back muscles.
What happens after a muscle is torn and bruised and bleeding? The muscle cramps up to stop the bleeding and attempt to keep from being torn more. No, I don’t like muscle relaxers much as medicines and they are useless long term. For sleep only right after injury. I am not talking about major trauma, but back pain and injuries.
If the muscle heals in the cramped position, it won’t work right any more. It can form scar tissue. It takes about six weeks for a muscle or ligament or tendon tear to heal and during that time we need to gently stretch the muscles without tearing them, so that they heal in the right position. Once they are healed in a scarred position, it’s more work to rehabilitate them, but it can be done. Physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractor, acupuncture, but the most important work is done BY the patient, not TO them. I can’t fix it with pills. Yes, it is work.
You can bruise bone too. Ow. The surface of the bone is living cells and the bones are continually torn down by osteoclasts and rebuilt by osteoblasts. The bone can be bruised without breaking. Again, 6 weeks to heal, little kids faster and 90 year olds kind of slow.
Take care of your muscles, ligaments and tendons, and they will take care of you.