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Fit for Life: Don’t ignore the pain

Don’t ignore the pain

December 13, 2007 
By Aaron Brouwer

aaronbrouwerInjuries are a part of life. What we do once we have suffered an injury will dictate how long recovery will be. No matter the type or extent of an injury, treatment should start immediately. A simple and very effective way to treat injuries is RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation). RICE reduces swelling, decreases pain and leads to a faster recovery time. RICE works on minor injuries as well as major injuries. Many times in major injuries there is too much swelling for doctors to properly diagnose the problem. RICE reduces the swelling, therefore leading to a quicker diagnosis.

Rest is very important; your body needs energy to heal itself.  Rest protects you from doing further damage to the injured body part. Your body needs time to heal, but rest doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping all the time.

Depending on the extent of the injury you can use alternative activities (swimming instead of running). Injury location will determine the extent of rest required. An injured arm may mean you just use your other arm for a couple of days, an injured leg or ankle could mean bed rest for a couple of days. If you continue to use the injured part, you will not reduce swelling and could do further damage or re-injure yourself.

Ice reduces the swelling by restricting blood flow to that area. Ice will also provide some short-term pain relief. Be sure to closely monitor your icing times. Never leave the ice on for more than 20 minutes. Some say ice for 20 minutes, remove ice for 20 minutes and repeat, others suggest you ice for 20 minutes, four to eight times a day.


Both are effective so do what you feel comfortable with. When placing ice on the swollen area, put it in a plastic bag wrapped in a kitchen towel. The same applies for a cold pack or a bag of frozen peas/corn. The towel will reduce the risk of ice burns and prevent blistering.

Compression restricts blood from pooling in the injured area, thereby reducing the amount of swelling.

Compression may offer some short-term pain relief. To apply compression over the injured site, use a tensor bandage and wrap it snugly around the injury. The objective here is to restrict blood flow, not cut it off; if you feel a throbbing sensation or if it just feels too tight, take off the tensor and rewrap the injury so that it is looser.

By elevating your injury, you are slowing down the blood flow, as blood now has to work against gravity to get to the injured site. Elevation will reduce swelling. The key is to keep the injured part above your heart level.

Our goal here, as you can see, is to reduce swelling. Swelling is the No. 1 factor in prolonging rehab times. Once the swelling has stopped the healing process can begin.  We don’t use heat initially because heat increases blood flow and therefore promotes swelling. Once the swelling has been eliminated, however, heat can be used to speed up the healing process because it does increase the flow of nutrients to the healing site.

Most minor injuries should start to heal after a day or two of RICE. After the swelling has stopped and you feel you have regained some range of motion, you can begin doing some light stretching. Don’t overdo it. Stretch till you feel some tension and hold it for 30 seconds, release and repeat.

Your goal here is to regain full range of motion. Once you have pain-free full range of motion, then you can start doing weight-bearing exercises to rebuild the muscle strength.

If you have not noticed a reduction in pain or swelling after two days your injury may be more serious and you should consult your family doctor.

Many firefighting activities and work-out exercises can lead to strains, sprains and other injuries. Taking care of your injuries immediately will get you back on duty faster.

Think of your injury like it’s a fire. You arrive on scene to a small basement fire. You complete your size-up and decide that the fire is just a small minor fire that might go away in a day or two; it’s no big deal and you do nothing. Now that fire may go out or it will continue to grow and become a lot more serious. Do you want to take that chance? 

It’s the same with injuries. If you roll your ankle, jam your finger or injure yourself in any other way, don’t ignore the pain. You may think that it will go away in a day or two, but it may not. Take care of your injuries immediately so that you can get back on the job.

Aaron Brouwer has 18 years of combined experience in structural and wildland fires. A graduate of Trinity Western University with a Bachelor’s of Human Kinetics, he is an instructor with Canwest Fire.

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