When you suffer a sprain, you may feel helpless. You may want to get back on the field or on the trail as soon as possible.
However, any ligament injury, such as a sprain, should be diagnosed and treated by qualified medical professionals. Don’t worry — we’ll get you back into your normal routine as soon as safely possible.
What are ligaments?
Ligaments are fibrous connective tissues that connect bones to other bones at the joint. These tissues are primarily composed of water, collagen fibers, and amino acids.
Ligaments can be damaged when you bend or twist a joint the wrong way.
A “sprain” is a soft tissue injury to the ligaments.
You may not be able to precisely identify a ligament injury on your own. It is important that you see a healthcare provider so he/she can diagnose the exact nature of your injury.
What helps injured ligaments heal faster? Injured ligaments heal faster when treated in a way to promote good blood flow. This includes short-term use of icing, heat, proper movement, increased hydration, and several sports medicine technologies like NormaTec Recovery and the Graston technique.
How long do ligaments take to heal? Some ligaments take as little as 6 weeks to heal fully. Other injuries take a year to heal. However, care by a sports medicine provider will be able to help your ligaments heal faster, as well as help to prevent future injuries from recurring.
Read on to learn more about physical therapy, movement, hydration, cold vs. heat, the best recovery diet, and the top supplements to help ligaments heal faster.
The Healing Process
The healing process is comprised of 4 phases:
- Cellularization (hemostasis): 0-24/48 hours
- Vascularization (inflammatory response): 0-2 weeks
- Fibrilization (proliferative): 4 days to a month
- Maturation (remodeling): up to 2 years
Each phase lasts longer depending on the severity of the injury.
The problem is that most people end up at a doctor’s office in the vascularization phase, which is all about promoting blood flow.
Because ice causes vasoconstriction (tightening of the blood vessels), it reduces the blood flow to the injured area, thereby slowing the healing process.
That’s not to say that ice can’t be useful. There are times we’ll use ice in the clinic because, while it does vasoconstrict, it also slows the peripheral nerve signaling. In a clinical setting, we have to weigh what has the highest value in the grand scheme of the treatment and treatment process of that day.
There are times when decreasing the nerve signals (pain reduction) will allow us to work much more effectively without the body fighting back (pain response).
1. Promote Blood Flow
We work with our patients to practice “active recovery” when addressing a ligament or tendon injury.
The best way to start promoting blood flow is very light cardio for a minimal amount of time. I recommend keeping your heart rate in about Zone ½. This zone is an elevated heart rate even lower than Zone 1, which is what you experience during warm-up and cool-down in a typical workout.
Heat increases blood flow to a heated area, which can accelerate healing and relax muscle tension. But heat may increase inflammation if applied to early after an injury. Wait 24 hours before applying heat to your injured ligament.
Many sports medicine doctors and physical therapists will suggest ice for swelling and pain relief — more often than they will suggest heat. However, the blood flow created by heat is vital to fast recovery.
Motion exercises specific to your physical injury support the healing process. These may be provided by a physical therapist, chiropractor, or other sports medicine provider.
During the first 4 weeks of recovery, movement to promote blood flow is the most effective way to speed ligament recovery.
We move fluid throughout our bodies via muscle contraction. Low-level cardio will contract the muscles, which move fluid, which will then pull inflammatory waste from the affected area. Then, the injured area will have space to move fresh nutrients and fluids in.
This promotes an environment for healing and speeds the healing process.
Low-level cardio activities are my #1 recommendation for movements to promote ligament healing. Just be sure not to continue an exercise if it causes extreme pain. Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re not sure an exercise is appropriate.
Cardio exercises that can support ligament healing include:
- Controlled kickboxing
- Walking on an elliptical machine
- Battle ropes
- Row machine
- Low-impact jumping jacks
Examples of stretches that may help ligaments heal faster include:
- Lift by bending your knees
- Leg lock bridge
- Glute bridge
- Butterfly stretch
- Cat and cow stretches
- Push-up walkout
- T-spine rotation
- Log roll
Unless you know exactly what injury you have sustained, be cautious when choosing at-home stretches. For instance, what works for one injury won’t necessarily be right for an injury in another part of the body.
When in doubt, talk to a healthcare provider about how to best stretch your injury for healing.
Physical therapy is used to improve the strength and range of motion of your joints where the ligament tear occured.
Once you begin physical therapy, a physical therapist will teach you stretches and exercises that help your ligament heal faster, without allowing overstretching.
Your therapist will also instruct you on what stretches and exercises you should do at home.
Physical therapy also reduces the risk of re-injury because it both strengthens the joint and helps you to become aware of the extent of your physical ability.
4. Hydration + Recovery Diet
First things first: Drink plenty of water to help your ligaments heal faster.
Increasing water intake will promote venous blood flow to flush the system of toxins. This promotes healing.
Aim to drink at least ½ your body weight in ounces of water each day.
When you suffer an ankle sprain or an overuse injury, you should follow a diet designed for recovery. Your recovery diet should include nutrient-rich foods and avoid refined carbs.
What foods help repair ligaments?
- Lean meats
- Whole grains
- Leafy greens
- Swiss chard
- Sweet potatoes
- Citrus fruits
Eat nutrient-rich food and avoid empty calories that could promote unwanted weight gain while you recover. As you fill your diet with nutrient-dense foods, cut out inflammatory foods high in sugar and processed chemicals.
5. NormaTec Recovery
NormaTec Recovery Boots promote passive venous return to speed up recovery for sports injuries. This system is a precise, high-tech leg massage that slips on like a pair of pants.
While the NormaTec system is typically used for pre- and post-workout, it can offer great benefit as part of ligament injury recovery.
6. Class IV Laser Therapy
A class IV laser is the most powerful therapeutic laser that is used in clinical settings. Class IV laser therapy can relieve pain, reduce inflammation and swelling, and speed the healing of a soft tissue injury.
7. The Graston Technique
The Graston technique accelerates rehabilitation of ligament and tendon injuries with instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization. In many cases, there may be a reduction in your pain levels immediately after the first treatment.
Treatments take about 10 minutes at a time, and the best results are experienced after the first 2-4 sessions.
The Graston technique may also speed your recovery after a surgical ligament repair.
Massage therapy can promote blood flow to the injured joint by gently stimulating blood vessels and soft tissue. This may accelerate your body’s natural tissue repair and overall healing process.
A licensed massage therapist will provide the most effective results when massaging injured joints. Self-massage may help with some minor ligament injuries, but may also lead to further injury.
Here at Action Spine & Sports Medicine, Olga Valiukh is proud to serve as the licensed massage therapist on staff. She specializes in reflexology, Russian sports massage, Swedish massage, acupressure, trigger point therapy, cupping, deep tissue massage, and hot stone.
Denver area residents: Click here to schedule a massage therapy appointment to support healing and athletic performance.
Here at Action Spine & Sports Medicine, we believe in drug-free treatments, if at all possible. Pharmaceuticals can cause adverse side effects. And the body has natural healing processes we aim to support, instead of stifle. One of the ways we support the body is with all-natural supplements.
Many experts will suggest non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen to reduce swelling and accelerate your body’s natural healing processes.
However, certain all-natural supplements can reduce inflammation just as effectively as man-made pharmaceuticals.
The best anti-inflammatory supplements include:
- Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil)
- Vitamin C (also good for the immune system)
- Cat’s claw
- Boswellia (Indian frankincense)
- Flaxseed oil
Surgery on a ligament is a last resort, but it is necessary if the ligament is severely torn. A surgeon should be able to:
- Reattach the ligament to the bone
- Remove damaged ligament fibers
- Repair any structural damage
Rehab after surgery may include physical therapy for several months.
Talk to a doctor when…
Do not wait after a sports injury to see if your joints feel any better. See your sports medicine healthcare provider right away. Otherwise, you may significantly slow down your body’s recovery time.
Clinicians have access to medical diagnostic equipment (for example, x-rays), as well as years of education. A sports medicine specialist can look at an injured ligament and quickly lay out treatment options for ligament healing.
Do ligaments heal on their own? Ligaments naturally heal on their own, but you can do a lot of things on accident to slow down or completely undo your body’s natural healing processes. If you do not properly treat a ligament injury, it will take longer to heal and be more likely to happen again.
Always talk to a doctor when you feel joint pain after a physical injury.
Preventing Future Injuries
Appropriate physical rehabilitation by a good sports medicine practitioner will be able to train your body to prevent future sports injuries. This is achieved in 3 ways:
- Rehabilitation and physical therapy services help to improve the range of motion for your injured joints.
- Stretches and massage strengthen surrounding muscles, so as to support the injured joint.
- Your sports medicine provider can help you learn what your joints can handle. Learning these limits can help you overcome them and return to normal life.
Dr. Benjamin Cowin (DC, MS, ATC, ICSC, CAFS) is an international leader in sports medicine and chiropractic. He owns and practices at Action Spine & Sports Medicine in Denver, Colorado. He has served Denver residents for almost half of his 20+ year career.
Click here or call us at (720) 541-7098 to set up your appointment with Action Spine & Sports Medicine in Denver, CO. We have seen countless ligament injuries heal faster under our care.
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