FitBase: Understanding the natural process of healing

We will learn about recognizing injuries and also how we can treat these and prevent them in the future. Before we do so, however, we thought that it could be useful to first understand the basics of the natural process of healing in soft tissue injuries.

Understanding the natural process of healing helps us understand what the “normal range” for healing is and will help you make a decision on what to do to help it along or who to consult to help you through the process. The soft tissues we will be concerned with are muscles, tendons and ligaments and the phases of healing are pretty much the same for all of the above.

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The 3 phases of healing

From the moment of injury through to recovery, our soft tissues can take between 6-12 weeks before the process has completed, but this doesn’t mean that you’ll be in pain or out of action for that long. Here’s how it works and what to do/ not to do in each phase

Acute / Inflammatory Phase: (Day 1 – 7)

Inflammation is a natural process as soon as you get hurt and this phase of chemical irritation, swelling, and pain can usually last up to 7 days.

Do: Consider professional guidance regarding Protection/ Rest/ Ice/ Compression/ Elevation/ Heat/ Protection/ Movement/ Exercise/ Analgesics (Pain Medication)/ Treatment in this phase. (the acronyms PRICE, POLICE and MEAT will be covered in a follow up article)

Don’t: In this phase, try to resist any anti-inflammatory medication unless its unbearably painful – your body needs to complete the inflammatory process to prepare for the next phase.

Regeneration Phase: (Day 7 – 21)

Your injured soft tissues regenerate with collagen formation over the course of day 7 – 21. Any disturbance to the scar tissue formation can lead to incomplete healing and a high risk of the injury recurring.

Do: Careful return to training.  It is often recommended that we avoid full loading of the injured area until this phase has completed (3 weeks of rest/ modified training post injury). Movement and exercise are essential in this phase.

Don’t: Push too hard too soon.

Remodelling Phase: (week 3 – 12)

By this stage we are often pain-free and much more comfortable to move BUT your tissues are still healing!! The repair process is maturing and we may still need to be careful during training and performance, possibly using bracing or taping to protect the healing area until recovery is complete.

Do: Manual and exercise therapy are often necessary to assist the rehabilitation and re-training of full functional movement. Find a manual and/or exercise therapist who can assist in creating an injury specific rehabilitation program.

Don’t: Do not assume that you will recover to your full strength without a rehabilitation exercise program. The entire body, starting with the brain and the nervous system has to be re-programmed to return to full strength and function. This can only happen with injury specific rehabilitation. 

Disturbance to the healing process can happen at any phase, often by overloading too soon. This may be experienced as a moment of pain, as if you’ve hurt yourself again. If the load was enough to cause damage, the process may be reset back to the inflammatory phase and the entire process has to start over.

* NB: These timeframes are not applicable to post surgery healing timelines.

When to seek professional advice

Considering what we know about the phases of healing, you should be able to tell whether your healing is going according to the natural time frame for each stage. Naturally, some injuries are more severe than others and sometimes all you’ve got is just a niggle. But when is niggle in need of more help?

– Any “niggle” or pain following an injury that hasn’t improved after more than 7 days needs professional attention.

– Any injury that hasn’t cleared by 6-8 weeks needs professional attention.

Who to see

Any professional who has a good knowledge base and training in the field of diagnosing and treating neuro-musculoskeletal injuries (Nerves, Muscles, Tendons, Ligaments, Joints) will be useful to have in your network of preferred professionals. These include Sports Physicians; Physiotherapists/ Physical Therapists; Sports Therapists; Chiropractors; and other Human Movement Scientists (e.g. Biokinetics and others).   

Choose health

With your upcoming performance or your career at stake, making the right choice of what to do when you get injured can be tough and therefore it’s useful to get professional advice. The cost of healthcare and therapy is an obvious obstruction for most dancers. Performing artists often have an unpredictable income source, but again we have to consider that the investment in your own health and well being is necessary to ensure a long, happy career in dance. The right care at the right time can also help you with a longstanding/ recurring injury and see you break through to the next level of performance. Lastly, you are the expert of your own body and if you have found something or someone who has worked for you, this is often the best choice for your body.

Take Care!


Cover photo by Brandom Solomon

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