Tips for How to Treat a Sports Injury Right After It Happens

If you get injured while playing sports or exercising, here's what to do right away.  These injury treatment tips will keep your pain and injury from getting worse and may help you heal more quickly.


Stop Exercise Immediately If You Have Pain

Injured football playing wincing while a teammate looks at his ankle
Alexa Miller / Getty Images

The first sign of any sports injury is usually sudden pain. And the first step in treating a sports injury is to prevent further injury or damage. This means stop the activity immediately and start treatment. Resting an injured part is essential to healing, so don't exercise through pain, which will only make the situation worse and may delay healing by days or even weeks.

If you have a sudden, sharp, or shooting pain, get off the field and sit out the rest of the game.


Reduce Swelling With Ice and Compression

Bag of ice on an athlete's knee

Joseph De Sciose / Getty Images 

The first thing that happens after an acute injury is swelling around the site of the injury. The first treatment for most acute soft tissue injuries (bruises, strains, sprains, tears) is to prevent, stop, and reduce swelling. When soft tissue is damaged, it swells or possibly bleeds internally. This swelling causes pain and loss of motion, which limits use of the muscles.

To reduce swelling, immediately apply ice to the injury, elevate the injured part above your heart, and use a compression wrap to help keep the swelling in check. Compression keeps the blood from pooling in the tissues. Don't wrap the bandages too tightly, but keep it snug.


Ice the Right Way

Woman putting an ice bag on her knee

PhotoAlto / Odilon Dimier / Getty Images

After most acute or sudden sports injuries, ice is your friend. Ice reduces swelling and helps decrease pain. Applying ice over a compression wrap can help reduce swelling more than the wrap alone.

The common treatment guidelines include applying ice to the injured part several times a day for 20 minutes each time. One of the easiest ways to ice an injury is with a bag of crushed ice or a bag of frozen vegetables, like peas. Let the area warm completely before applying ice again (to prevent frostbite). Never apply heat to an acute injury. Heat will increase circulation and swelling.


Medicate When Appropriate

Man holding a pill and a glass of water

Paul Bradbury / Getty Images


Pain is the primary symptom of the majority of sports injuries. Most soft-tissue injuries are painful because of the swelling and inflammation that occurs after an injury. Pain relief is often the main reason that people turn to over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory medications that work by reducing addressing the inflammation that occurs as a result of the injury.

Over-the-counter pain medications are also useful for reducing the pain of ​muscle strains and muscle pulls.


Start Moving as Soon as You Can

Man's knee being evaluated by a physical therapist

Hero Images / Getty Images

After a day or two of rest and ice, most sprains, strains, or other injuries will begin to heal. If your pain or swelling doesn't decrease after 48 hours, see your doctor.

Once healing begins, mobility exercises, gentle stretching, and light massage may reduce adhesions and scar tissue formation and improve muscle function. Slowly increase range of motion in the injured joint or muscle. But be careful not to force any stretches or you risk re-injury to the area.


Rebuild Strength and Joint Stability

Men and Women doing balance and resistance band workout in gym

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After an injury, it is essential for joints to return to proper alignment. A good rehab program will include exercises that target joint stability, which is considered the most important thing to rebuild following a lower extremity injury.

Finally, after the injury has healed, begin strengthening exercises. Start with easy weights and use good form.


Should I Ice or Heat My Injury?

Heating pad on neck

Sisoje / Getty Images

The treatment for acute sports injuries starts by applying ice. But after healing is well underway, heat may be helpful to ease muscle tension in chronic aches and pains.

6 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Is there such a thing as ‘good pain’ and when should you listen to your body?.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Sports injuries: acute soft-tissue injuries.

  3. University of Michigan. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE).

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. Treating sports injuries with ice and heat.

  5. Kim J, Sung D-J, Lee J. Therapeutic effectiveness of instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilization for soft tissue injury: mechanisms and practical application. J Exerc Rehabil. 2017;13(1):12-22. doi:10.12965/jer.1732824.412

  6. Van den bekerom MP, Struijs PA, Blankevoort L, Welling L, Van Dijk CN, Kerkhoffs GM. What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults?. J Athl Train. 2012;47(4):435-43. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.14

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.