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Treating Minor Martial Arts Injury: Don't let Small Injuries Become Chronic Issues

Treating Minor Martial Arts Injury: Don't let Small Injuries Become Chronic Issues

Diagnosis Code Y93.75, If you don't know it, you should.

It's doctor code for a martial arts injury.


Minor aches and pains are a part of life, and as martial artists, we are prone to more than our usual share. In my practice as a Chiropractor and Acupuncturist, I am often called upon to treat people who have let minor bumps and bruises, sprains or strains go untreated until they become chronic, nagging problems. Timely treatment of minor bruises, strains, sprains, and muscle pulls can mean the difference between rapid recovery and worsening or permanent injury. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) provides a wealth of knowledge and treatments for the minor damage of sports injury.


It needs to be said: in the case of severe injuries, like a fracture, consult a physician at your soonest opportunity.


TCM recognizes that there are three stages to sinew (muscles, tendons, ligaments) injuries: acute, post-acute, and chronic. The acute phase is when the injury just happened; post-acute is about a week later and can last up to three weeks; chronic begins three to four weeks after the initial injury. To avoid reaching the chronic injury phase, it is crucial to address your injury when it is acute and post-acute.


The acute phase is characterized by pain, swelling, redness, and heat - aka, inflammation. The qi (body's energy), blood, and fluids have become stagnant or stuck due to the force of the injury. Swelling is a backup of fluids while bruising is an accumulation of blood in the tissues outside of the blood vessels. During the acute phase, our goal is to restore normal circulation (to move the qi and blood) to the area to promote healing. Liniments, acupressure and massage, and gentle range of motion exercises are important self-care techniques that you can do at home. Acupuncture, bleeding, and cupping are techniques that can also help during the acute phase of an injury, but these must be performed by a Licensed Acupuncturist.


Liniments are topical liquids that can be applied to the area of injury to help speed up recovery. They are typically prepared with alcohol and are used externally only (do not drink it!). To apply the liniment, use a cotton ball by holding it tightly to the bottle opening and turn it over. When you have enough liniment on the cotton ball, gently rub it all over the injury.


Be careful as they can stain clothing. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after use and avoid contact with your eyes. You can apply liniments several times per day, but if you overapply, you may irritate your skin. If your skin becomes irritated, discontinue use. They should only be used on skin that is unbroken.


There are dozens of liniments that can be used for sports injuries – they each have a different combination of herbs that can target what you are experiencing.


Dr. Shir’s Liniment (pronounced “Shur”) is one of the best formulas for muscle sprains and strains, as well as painful, swollen joints. This liniment is especially useful when an area is too painful to massage. It is great for the typical bumps and muscle pains from martial arts.


Dragon’s Blood is a formula that targets bruising due to traumatic injury. This liniment can be applied to any type of bruise. It is also a cooling liniment, so it is also useful for any inflamed injuries and swelling. I recommend using Dragon’s Blood over Dr. Shir’s when there is heat present in the injury (which you can tell by gently touching the area).


Zheng Gu Shui (pronounced “juhng goo shway”) is also known as “Bone Break Liniment.” Traditionally, this liniment is used to help heal fractures, as the name suggests. It can also be very helpful for bone bruises. To make the Zheng Gu Shui even more effective, I recommend wrapping the injury to let the liniment sink in deeper – it’s what I did to help heal my fractured foot after round-house kicking an elbow.


In the evening after not staying off my feet enough at work, my foot would ache and be swollen. I would apply the Zheng Gu Shui with a cotton ball to the entire area, putting enough liniment on that there would liquid still on my skin. Then I would use saran wrap around my foot to hold the liquid onto the skin. I would sit on the couch with my injured foot elevated for 15-30 minutes or until the area became too cold. (The liniment is cooling and if applied too long, it can cause “cold pain” – if you do that by accident, just put the affected area in a warm shower to heat up.) It really helped my pain and swelling and my fractured foot was better in 2 months. (Foot fractures can take longer because you cannot always keep it immobile like casting an arm.)


During the acute phase, it is important to avoid heat if there is significant inflammation because it is like adding coals to a fire. However, ice is also important to avoid. In TCM, we understand that it is important to COOL inflammation down but not to make it COLD. Cold actually slows down the circulation, which leads to fluid buildup and delayed healing – which is the opposite effect that you want! What you want to do is promote circulation to get the inflammatory waste products out and fresh qi and blood in. So when you have hot inflammation that you want to cool down, liniments are a great way to do it.


Once the injury is not painful to the touch, you can start to gently massage the area and stimulate the acupoints near them. It is also important to start gentle range of motion exercises to keep the qi and blood flowing. Don’t go crazy!


And as always, if you find that the injury is not improving within a week or two (or is getting worse), get it checked out by your doctor or acupuncturist.


Quick intervention and care can help keep minor martial arts injuries from becoming major problems. As the adage says, "An ounce of prevention beats a ton of cure."


Dr. Janine Pulley is a Nidan in Uechi-Ryu Karate as well as a Chiropractor & Acupuncturist working out of North Andover, Massachusetts.

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