Treating Strains and Sprains: Don’t Just Sit There, Get Moving!

January 12th, 2007 by

Gina Kolata has a provocative article in the New York Times (free registration required), which outlines a very proactive approach to the treatment of strains and sprains. Dr. William Roberts, a sports medicine specialist, says “we want to keep you moving.”
Dr. James Weinstein, an orthopedic surgeon, hurt his back while lifting a box. He was in a lot of pain. He could not sit and after lying down, he could barely get up. (Been there, done that.) So, contrary to conventional wisdom, he decided to go out for a run.
“I took an anti-inflammatory, iced up and off I went.” When he finished running, he felt “pretty good.”
The theory here is that injured tissue heals better if it’s under some sort of stress. Beyond that, if the injury is not severe, resting it will probably prolong recovery. In other words, in treating many of the routine strains and sprains that occur in the workplace, the best course of action may be to keep people active – very active.
Conversely, the worst approach may well be the most common: take a steady stream of anti-inflammatory drugs and stay off your feet. One study suggests that taking anti-inflammatories is fine at the onset of injury (and just prior to vigorous exercise). But once the inflammation has set in, the drugs can make matters worse.
Dr. Weinstein’s advice is pretty radical: Before exercise, take one anti-inflammatory pill. Ice the area for 20 minutes. Then start your usual exercise or activity – the one that caused the injury! When you finish, ice the injured area again. The anti-inflammatory reduces pain and swelling and forestalls new inflammation from the pending exercise. The icing constricts blood vessels before and after exercise, thereby preventing some of the inflammatory white blood cells from reaching the injured tissue.
As one doctor put it, if the pain is no worse after exercising than it is when the person simply walks, then exercise is the preferred course of action. These doctors are operating with a sense of urgency: “If you take athletes or active people out, they get depressed, they get wacky.” The same goes for many disabled workers.
Implications for Workers Comp
This article focuses on athletes in training. While we might like to think of workers as “industrial athletes,” that’s not always the case. People training on their own are highly motivated. Injured workers run the gamut from highly to marginally motivated. Some are in good physical condition; many are not. People exercise for themselves and their own well being. We work, well, to make a living. In too many instances, not working for a while, or performing only very light duty tasks, are more attractive than speeding back to our regular jobs.
I wonder what a return to work plan from Dr. Weinstein might look like. Perhaps a workday divided like this: some time spent in the original, physically demanding job that caused the injury, with icing before and after. Then some time on lighter duty functions that give the affected body parts a rest. Such a plan may seem far fetched, but what strikes me in this situation is the difficulty in “doing no harm.” When the conventional doctor prescribes pills combined with no work or with light duty, he or she may be prolonging disability. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the best treatment plan for the patient immobilized with pain may be to get up and get moving.