I receive the calls regularly. "I just pulled a muscle. Do you have any availability today?" Here's the thing; I know you are in pain and want the pain relieved, but it just isn't a good idea to massage an injury while it is in the acute stage (right after it happens). When we injure ourselves, our body's immune system kicks into gear rushing to start the healing process as soon as possible. Many of the things that we register as symptoms of the injury (inflammation) are just our body doing its job. What are the signs of inflammation? Just remember the acronym SHARP which stands for Swelling, Heat, Altered function, Redness, and Pain. Each of these symptoms has a purpose and in most cases should be left to do their work unhindered. Let's take a quick look at why these symptoms occur.
One of the things our body does is rush fluid to the area of the injury to provide a bit of protection and begin the healing process. The fluid is full of white blood cells which do the important work of initiating repair to the structure. In addition to the all important white blood cells, the extra fluid helps to put pressure on the wound and creates a sort of cushion around the injury similar to wrapping your breakables in bubble wrap.
The reason our injuries tend to get warm or hot is due to the influx of blood and fluid to the area. Our blood usually stays around 98.6F, so with all of that extra blood flow, things are bound to heat up.
I think this one is pretty self explanatory. If you hurt yourself, your body will prevent you from moving in the same way in order to prevent further injury. Additionally, depending on the severity of the injury, the structure may be too damaged to work properly until further healing is done.
Much like heat, redness in an injury is caused by increased blood flow. It is actually a fairly straight forward explanation. Blood is red, and the more blood there is flowing to an area, the more red it will appear.
I often say that pain is our brain's way of telling us something is wrong. When you injure yourself, your brain sends a pain signal to let you know so that you don't continue to do the activity that caused the injury. In addition, the extra fluid in the area creates pressure which may increase the amount of pain you experience.
When to call your doctor
It is a good idea to call a doctor after a muscular injury if you are experiencing numbness, heavy bleeding, loss of function, or if symptoms of inflammation last more than a week.
So, when can I get a massage?
It is generally best to wait about 72 hours after an injury occurs before seeking manual therapy to facilitate healing. Your body needs a chance to start to heal itself and to repair any tissue that may be in danger of developing infection. If you have a serious injury, you may need to wait longer after seeking medical attention. I know it is frustrating because when we are in pain our instinct is to try to make the pain go away, but your body is working hard to repair the damage and it is important that it be left to do its job. If I massage your brand new injury, it is likely to just make things worse by either preventing the body from doing its own healing, or actually irritating the tissue further and worsening the injury.
What can I do in the meantime?
In instances of muscles strains (pulled muscles) which are the most common reason people to want to book right away, it is best to avoid any strenuous activity. You don't have to keep the injury immobile, but try to avoid anything that makes the pain worse. You can take a warm bath with epsom salts (too hot and you risk raising the temperature more), wrapping with an elastic bandage to apply pressure to the injury, use aids to move around (cane, crutches, braces), or take over the counter pain relief medications if your doctor says it is okay. The use of ice is actually kind of controversial. On one hand, ice will help to reduce the inflammation, but as we now know, inflammation is a sign of the body healing itself. I tend to recommend against ice in most cases instead moving straight to heat after the 72 hour acute phase is up.
I know it can be hard to be patient when you are in pain, but your body knows exactly what it is doing. Trust your body. It has your best interest in mind.
Meet the Author
Amanda Tarver, (LMT, CEIM, PES, RMT) is a massage therapist and birth worker in the Chicago area. She is dedicated to using a combination of bodywork and education to help people live a better quality of life.