One week ago I sprained my ankle. We were running this beautiful, mysterious trail edged by aspen and pine trees in the inner basin of the San Francisco Peaks. I had never tried trail running, and just as I was getting cocky, just as I thought, “I’m amazed I haven’t tripped yet…” my notoriously weak ankle gave way. It made a hideous sound, a sort of crunching pop that makes me sick even as a memory. I’m not used to hurting myself, to propping my leg up on a pillow and sitting still for a week (though I have to admit it was kind of nice – I got to read a book for fun!).
I find the human body extremely fascinating. The way all our body systems intricately work together is kind of mind blowing, and we definitely take that connectivity for granted. There’s nothing like an injury to drive home how much one system relies on the other. Watching my ankle swell, lose mobility, change color, and gradually return to normal was like a science experiment. We all know how to treat a sports injury – ice, pressure, elevation, etc. – but what’s really going on under the surface? What the hell is inside all that swelling?!
Well, I’ll tell you.
Don’t be squeamish.
This info will help you heal much faster.
So you’ve fallen and you can’t get up… just kidding… When you sustain an injury, a sprain for example, the body’s natural response is to bring blood and other nutrient-rich fluids to the damage site. Essentially, this is the swelling. This swelling is normal and natural, and has several functions.
1. It compresses nerve endings causing pain. This is unpleasant, but it prevents us from using the injured body part.
2. It’s a blood bath of nutrients formulated specifically to heal damaged tissue.
We all know the four parts of blood: red and white blood cells, plasma, and platelets. Where an injury is concerned, white blood cells and platelets are essential to recovery. White blood cells help protect against infection, while platelets are responsible for coagulation (clotting). Platelets release healing proteins called growth factors that accelerate tissue repair. They increase musculoskeletal connective tissue, attract stem cells for repairing the body, stimulate connective tissue growth, and stimulate oxygen and nutrient flow. In fact, platelets are so important to injury recovery, doctors have started administering Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) Injections to patients with acute and chronic injuries to stimulate cell repair.
Note: Swelling is important and natural, but the body does not regulate how much fluid is actually needed, therefore, swelling can become excessive and even damaging unless counter-acted with ice. Ice an injury for 20 minutes every few hours during the first 72 hours after injury.
The lymphatic system is one of the least understood systems in the human body. It is known to be an important part of the immune system, but it is also a vital part of trauma recovery. The lymphatic system is responsible for draining old, stagnant blood and fluids away from the injury, and detoxifying the body. This is why swelling begins to go down after a few days.
The arterial and venous systems (commonly known as the circulatory system), responsible for bringing nutrient-rich fluids to a wound, are powered by our heart. The lymphatic system (also considered a “circulatory system”) is unique because it is not powered by a pump. Instead, the movement of our arms and legs is responsible for draining fluids through the proper lymph channels.
You have to get up and move! You may not want to, it may be uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t just sit there and be sedentary. I’m not saying you should be jumping on a trampoline or doing cartwheels around the house. In fact, doctors often recommend not returning to full activity until all swelling is gone. It is very important that you work with your body and help it heal by getting a proper balance of rest and activity. Gentle physical activity, as long as it doesn’t aggravate your injury, will get your blood pumping and your lymph fluid moving – it’s a cycle and you are the motor that drives it. Obviously, it’s very likely you will still recover if you don’t get off your ass, but you can cut your recovery time down by taking an active approach to you health.