Treat Strains with Heat, Not Cold
There's a difference between sprains and strains. Sprains affect ligaments (or joints). Strains occur when a muscle is stretched or partially torn. If you have a strain, you can tell, because it won't get swollen or black and blue like a sprain. And the treatment is different. You'll heal faster from a strain if the area around the injured muscle is heated slightly, says John Rabkin, M.D., assistant professor of surgery at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
Heat works better for strains because it increases blood flow and the influx of oxygen to muscles, which speeds production of collagen, a crucial step in the healing process. Just put a hot water bottle or heating pad on the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes four to six times a day. But don't rub on Ben-Gay or another ointment before applying heat; the skin can absorb so much of the cream that it can cause deep blistering.
Eat pineapple. "You can speed recovery and get rid of any bruising from a sprain by eating a lot of pineapple--especially right after your injury," says Steven Subotnick, D.P.M., a sports podiatrist in Hayward, California, and author of Sports and Exercise Injuries. "That's because pineapple has bromelain, an enzyme that helps heal bruises and speed healing." (The only drawback is that bromelain can cause dermatitis in some people, so take the pineapple off your diet if your skin begins to feel itchy.)
Use ice and elevate. most experts recommend immediate icing for sprains, followed by elevating the sprained joint above heart level. The cold deadens the pain and decreases blood flow, which lessens swelling. Keep the ice on for 15 to 20 minutes, then take it off for an equal amount of time, four or five times daily for at least two days. Be careful not to place an ice pack directly on your skin. Instead, wrap it in a towel. By elevating the joint, you also help keep blood flowing away from that area, which reduces pain and swelling.
Wrap it. "Wrapping the sprained area in an elastic bandage helps keep the joint in position and prevents further injury," adds Dr. Subotnick. "Wrap it so that it's snug, but not so tight that you're cutting off circulation."
Get the right shoes. If you repeatedly sprain your ankles, here's a way to avoid it in the future: Wear the shoes specifically designed for your activity. They provide the support, traction and cushioning needed, which can greatly reduce your risk of reinjury. Generally speaking, high-top sneakers are best if you're prone to ankle injuries.
Or get new shoes. If you're a runner, you should replace running shoes every 500 to 750 miles, suggests Joseph Ellis, D.P.M., a sports podiatrist and consultant for the University of California, San Diego. Running shoes take a beating, and after a while, they don't protect your feet as well. Beyond the 500-mile mark, "shoes have lost much of their ability to absorb shock, increasing risk of injury," says Dr. Ellis. (Other doctors suggest replacing running shoes as often as every 300 miles.)