Has this ever happened to you? You wake up on a seemingly normal morning. Maybe you slept poorly. Maybe you overexerted yourself the previous day. Maybe you are just really stressed about something… You go to stand up, and then it hits you. The PAIN! The cramping, tightening, debilitating pain. For some of us it’s the lower back, causing us to double over. For others it’s our neck or upper back, preventing us from turning our head, or worse yet, having our head stuck to one side or the other.
What should you do? Heat, ice, stretch, drugs, essential oils, wine… so many choices, but which is best?
I was reminded of this all too common scenario today when a patient came in unable to move her neck. She was in pain so intense there were tears in her eyes! If you’ve ever had a similar experience you know how awful it can be.
First thing, DO NOT USE HEAT! Most of us think heat will give us some immediate relief, but you’ll wind up worse in the long run. Any injury produces inflammation. Extra blood, fluids, cells, etc rush to the area to clean up damage and start rebuilding. But when you apply heat you’re causing an already irritated, inflamed area to inflame even more. The pain may feel slightly better at first due to the increased circulation, but it will come back with a vengeance!
Cold will take the edge off by decreasing excess inflammation. It will produce a numbing effect on the area. Cold does not feel quite as comfortable at first, but trust me, in the long run it is the best choice. If you do not have a cold pack, a bag of frozen veggies will work just as well.
There are also topical cooling gels that get great results and can last for hours. BioFreeze is one of leading brands on the market, however most use the same active ingredient and will have a similar effect. They are also quite portable and can be carried with you, or even placed in a first aid kit.
Another topical that my first aid kit will never be without is Arnica Gel. Arnica Montana is a homeopathic which speeds up healing and tissue repair, and helps with pain relief, inflammation, and bruising. With most injuries the first steps are apply Arnica and apply cold. (Note: Arnica gel should not be used on open wounds. If open wound you first need to clean or debride the wound, stop the bleeding with a styptic. For more tips on open wound care comment at the bottom with your email)
Once the initial inflammation has improved it will be much easier to assess just how bad the situation is. While you will want to rest (time is really the most important component to healing) some light movement and stretching can be quite helpful. For low back pain, stretching your hamstrings and going for a walk can help. For neck pain, lying with a neck roll, side-to-side stretching, or resistance stretching can help. Movement is good, but don’t overdo it. the purpose of the movement is to get the blood and lymph fluids moving and preventing the area from stiffening up. Use your judgement. If it’s making it worse STOP!
Pressure applied in the right way can also be very beneficial. If there is a muscle that is cramping or very tight, place steady pressure in the center of the tightness and gently move the muscle. If it is more of a joint sprain/strain injury, compress the area with an ACE bandage or medical tape.
If the injury is to a joint such as the ankle or knee, elevation can also help. Sit with the affected leg propped up. The elevation will help the excess inflammation drain out.
The acronym RICE can help you to remember what do.
Rest- Time is the most important factor
Ice- COOL the inflamed area
Compression- Pressure prevents excess inflammation, and can loosen tight muscles
Elevation- Prevents inflammation from pooling in certain parts of the body
If the injury is muscular, some light movement and trigger point work can help. If it is joint damage focus more on resting and immobilizing the joint for a few days.
So be safe. Be smart. And if you do get hurt, don’t do anything to make it worse!