A Common Injury
Sprains are some of the most common injuries in high-impact sports. They are also one of the most frustrating to treat. For avid athletes, the prospect of sitting still during recovery for weeks on end is enough to drive them crazy. Many are tempted to return to their sport before the sprain has fully healed, inviting re-injury and chronic long-term problems. They can prevent that painful cycle by following a step-by-step program to treat the sprain using a holistic method.
The age-old conventional wisdom on treating sprains has always been to use the “RICE” method, but in recent years, the “MEAT” method has gained prominence and popularity. Both (as we explain below) have benefits and disadvantages. Dr. Harry Adelson, N.D., who specializes in prolotherapy and sports injuries, suggests a combination of the two methods to best treat a sprain.
“When we use RICE,” he explains, “we decrease pain by blocking the inflammatory cascade, but in doing so we suppress healing … For a strain/sprain type injury, I recommend RICE for the first 4 hours after the injury (ice 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off), and then shift to MEAT. MEAT encourages the body’s own natural healing capacity to do its thing.”
Using both methods allows us to quickly treat a sprain at the onset of pain while setting up an optimal long-term healing environment.
The RICE Method
The RICE method for injuries is an acronym for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Here’s a breakdown of how RICE works:
- Rest. Use a splint, sling, or crutches to provide support to the sprained body part.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack (or a bag of vegetables) to the sprained area for 20 minutes or less every 3-4 hours.
- Compression. Without cutting off circulation, wrap the injury snugly with a stretch-bandage. This should only be used in early treatment of the sprain, as compression can prevent the drainage of excess fluid from the injured area, potentially prolonging inflammation around the joint.
- Elevate. Place pillows under the sprain to elevate it higher than the heart. This helps promote fluid drainage from the injured limb. If possible, move the muscles near the sprain to increase blood circulation.
The goal of the RICE method is to reduce swelling in the injured area. But once the swelling has gone down, the tactics used in the RICE method can actually suppress healing. Because of the risks associated with long-term treatment, most doctors specializing in sports injuries only recommend using it for the first 4-12 hours of treatment. Then, they propose switching to the MEAT method.
The MEAT Method
The MEAT method for injuries is an acronym for movement, exercise, analgesia, and treatment. Here’s a breakdown of how MEAT works:
- Movement. Move the injured body part to increase circulation and prevent the formation of adhesions. A widely recommended exercise is drawing the alphabet with the injured body part.
- Exercise. Without overdoing it, strengthen the sprained body part with gradual exercise. For example, someone with a sprained ankle might progress from putting weight on the foot to slow walking. This promotes blood circulation and activates nerve fibers, which can help restore strength in the surrounding muscles.
- Analgesia. Use natural or pharmaceutical medications to decrease pain. For mild pain, Tylenol is suitable, while more acute pain might require an over-the-counter nutritional supplement or prescribed medications.
- Treatment. Home treatments of alternated heat (2 minutes) and ice (30 seconds) will help speed healing. Do 3-4 reps of this treatment 3-4 times per day. Treatments such as acupuncture, prolotherapy, and mesotherapy can also help with acute injuries.
The main risk of the MEAT method is doing too much, too soon. A slow-paced recovery that does not push the body too quickly helps heal the injury faster. The principal benefit of using the MEAT method is that the sprain will heal correctly, which will prevent re-injury in the future.
Seeking Further Help
Using these methods, a mild sprain should heal within two to three weeks. But there are several indicators that a patient should seek further consultation with a specialized physician after a sprain, including:
- If the patient experiences severe pain when he or she tries to move or puts any weight on the injured joint
- If, once the swelling has gone down, the injury looks different (crookedness, bumps in odd places) from the uninjured joint
- If the same joint or tendon has been injured multiple times
- If the area around the sprain injury is numb, tender, or if there are red streaks spreading out from the injury—these are indicators of a potential infection
- If there is any confusion about how serious the injury is or doubts about how best to treat it
- If the limb with the injured joint buckles as the patient runs through his or her movement exercises
- If the patient cannot move the injured joint
While most sprains can be treated fairly easily with a combination of physical therapy and the RICE or MEAT method, some sprains — especially repeat injuries — can lead to weakened joints and might require an operation to fix. A consultation with a physician is recommended in cases like this. Family and friends can also help the patient during the recovery process by ensuring that the injury is fully healed and allowing the patient time to ease back into his or her activity.