How long you have to take it easy following an injury depends on a number of factors and working out how much rest is needed for recovery can be quite complicated. Rest is important to allow injuries to heal, but too much rest can be as bad as too little. Taking it easy can also be difficult when you need to use the affected part of the body every day.
With some injuries such as simple sprains it is fairly straightforward to know when to take it easy, and you can generally start using the injured part when you feel that it is the right time. However, for injuries that are taking a long time to heal it is more complicated.
Many people worry that they will get out of shape if they stop working out or engaging in their sport, but it is important to let healing take place before worrying about this. Injuries caused by overuse will not heal if you keep on doing the action that caused them in the first place, so it is important to concentrate on healing and work towards restoring your fitness once this has happened. If you do not heal properly you may suffer chronic pain for years, and this will impact on your performance.
Taking it easy can involve resting the injured part while still exercising in different ways to maintain some fitness.
Another common worry is that you will put on weight while recovering from an injury if you take it easy. Weight gain however depends far more on calorie intake than on exercise, so simply reducing the amount you eat when you are not exercising can prevent weight gain.
Sports injuries take time to heal but healing will be quicker if the injury receives first aid treatment immediately when it occurs. Reducing swelling and controlling inflammation is important to allow healing to begin.
Actual healing times can vary between individuals, but athletes generally have a better blood supply and consequently heal more quickly than people with sedentary lifestyles. The blood supply is important because it moves oxygen, nutrients and white cells that fight infection to the injured area. Other factors that are relevant to healing include good nutrition, rest, sleep and appropriate activity.
Sometimes physiotherapy is also needed for certain injuries.
Average healing times following injury
Although there are variations between individuals, the following gives an estimate as to how long healthy people will take to recover from some of the commonest sports injuries.
Simple fractures usually take a minimum of six weeks to heal, but this can depend on the site of the fracture and the type. Fractured fingers or toes generally heal within three to five weeks whilst a broken collarbone can take between five and ten weeks to heal.
A sprained ankle can take anything from five days for a minor sprain to as much as six weeks for a severe sprain. Calf strains can take just two weeks for a grade 1 strain to heal and as much as three months or more for the healing of a severe grade 3 calf strain.
Healing of abrasions and cuts can take anything from one week to a month depending on the location of the injury, how deep it is and what treatment it receives. A deep cut that needs stitches will take longer to heal than a shallow one.
Bruises and contusions caused by a blow to the body usually heal in around five days and do not generally require the injured person to take it easy while they get better.
More severe injuries include shoulder separation, Achilles tendon rupture and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. Following a mild shoulder separation you should take it easy for about two weeks before returning to activity. A serious injury such as a ruptured Achilles tendon will probably need surgery and will take between four and six months to heal, so it is necessary to take it easy until the injury has healed.
If you are unfortunate enough to need a complete ACL repair, it will take months to heal and you will need to be patient and take it easy until your surgeon advises that you can recommence your activity. Your rehabilitation can be quite gradual, involving walking with crutches at first, and then without them by about the third week. In around five months healing should be complete.
Good conditioning will help you to recover from an injury more quickly as well as lessening the risk of injury and reducing the injury’s severity. You should try to stay in shape all year and pay attention to any injury warning signs such as joint pain or a reduction in your range of movement. Although you will need to take it easy to some extent, you can often maintain base fitness while you are recovering. In all cases, it is important to obtain your doctor’s approval before resuming exercise. They will suggest what type of exercise to do, and how much is advisable. Different forms of training can be tried, including swimming, cycling, water running, rowing and weight training for parts that are uninjured.
Once you are appropriately directed by your doctor, you should start to regain your strength and range of motion, but stop and avoid any movements that cause you pain. You will have to take it relatively easy for a few weeks even once your flexibility and muscle strength have returned, so work at around 50% capacity for a while.
Some injuries are harder than others to rest. The knees, feet and dominant hand are examples of parts of the body that are difficult to rest properly. If you have a condition such as plantar fasciitis you really need to rest your feet until there is no pain because each step can irritate the injury and keep it going or make it worse.
Safely returning to sports
You should not return to your sport until you are pain free, so if an area hurts you should not use it. It is important to wait until any swelling has subsided because swelling is a sign that the area is inflamed. If you have swelling it is too soon to return to the sport.
Wait until you have regained a full range of motion. If you are unsure as to whether you have, compare the injured area with the uninjured part on the opposite side. It is also important to wait until your strength has returned, or at least 90 per cent of it. You can also compare the injured side with the uninjured one to judge whether your strength has returned.
If you have suffered a lower body injury you need to ensure that you are able to weight bear on the injured hip, knee or ankle without limping. If you are still limping it is too early to return to your sport, and you could cause further problems and pain by attempting to do so. If you have suffered an upper body injury you need to assess whether you can carry out throwing movements without pain and with proper form before starting your sport again.
Even when you feel completely better there may still be problems with joint stability and deficits in strength, skill or flexibility, so you should be careful with the injured area for a few months.
People usually recover from even the most serious injuries, but you may need to be patient and take it easy for some time. However, you can usually find a way of staying fit and active without causing stress to the injured tissues. You need to strike a balance between early mobilisation and aggravating the injury by doing too much too soon. Old injuries are generally more prone to irritation and need longer to recover from.