How to recover from injury

Image of woman stretching out leg during recovery
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Recovering from an injury is somewhat of an art, as professional sportspeople and their teams will attest. It takes a combination of rest, rehabilitation, good nutrition and appropriate medical care to get back on top form as quickly as possible.

Recovery can also feel overwhelming at times, so it’s essential to approach the process gently, accompanied by medical professionals where necessary. To help demystify the recovery process, we’ll explore the crucial aspects of it, starting with how to figure out if you should rest or push through an injury. We’ll look into how to adapt your diet to help you recover, including whether you should take any supplements. And, we’ll highlight how experts recommend you take care of your mental health during recovery so you can avoid feeling low.

What should you do when first injured?

Image of woman with injured knee

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Each person’s recovery will vary. Here, we’re focusing on minor orthopedic injuries, such as muscles injured during sports training or hurting your back while doing yard work. However, some of the information will apply to you if you have sustained a more severe injury. Either way, following medical guidance is vital, so be sure to check with your doctor before changing your routine during recovery. 

Immediately after the incident that caused the injury, the Mayo Clinic recommends following these steps to avoid making it worse:

  • Rest. Don’t push through the pain as you could end up making it worse and putting yourself out of action for longer.
  • Ice. Apply a cold compress, some ice, or even frozen food, such as peas, to the painful area. Limit this to 20 minutes at a time to avoid hurting your skin.
  • Heat. Alternate between ice packs and warmth from a hot water bottle or a heat pack.
  • Elevation. Where possible, prop the injured area up. This can aid in reducing swelling, which in turn can help alleviate pain.

You will also need to consider how limiting your injury is and whether you will need help around the house or even time off work or school. Do you need help to complete daily tasks? Are there just a few tasks you might need help with? Either way, finding support from family, friends, or neighbors will help lessen the burden on you so you can focus on getting better. 

It’s essential for you to listen to your body while recovering: not every day will be the same as the one before. If your pain starts to flare up again, don’t be afraid to scale back your activity levels until the pain subsides.

Only once you've been cleared by a medical professional – and you no longer feel the pain – should you look into building up your strength in the problem area. Once you're recovered, you could try a simple weights at home workout to regain lost muscle, or turn to some of the best resistance bands for gentle rehabilitation exercises. 

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Can foods help you recover from an injury?

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Food and supplements can help your body heal from injuries by giving it the nutrients it needs to repair itself. Some nutrients to include within a balanced diet include: 

  • Protein: Injuries can lead to loss of muscle mass because the area you have injured is used less while you rest to recover. According to a 2015 study in Sports Medicine, increasing your protein intake through supplements, such as shakes, or in your diet by eating lean meats, can support your body to minimize this loss. Once you’re ready to return to normal levels of activity, increasing your protein intake can help your muscles heal and regenerate faster.
  • Vitamin C: Eating a diet rich in vitamin C can help boost your body’s collagen production abilities, which can allow injuries to heal more efficiently, according to the same study. These foods include leafy greens, berries and tomatoes, as well as oranges and mangoes. 
  • Zinc: Low levels of zinc have been found to delay healing, making the nutrient an important one to remember during recovery from an injury, according to a Journal of Research in Medical Sciences study. Foods rich in zinc include pulses, seeds, and nuts.

How to look after your mental health when recovering from injury

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Coping with an injury can feel difficult, especially if it’s preventing you from doing things you enjoy or from being able to earn a living. Research published in 2013 in the journal Injury found the most crucial factor in caring for mental health after injury was early detection of issues. This means that medical professionals, family members, and even patients themselves should be aware of signs to look out for during recovery that could indicate your mental health needs extra attention. 

This said, prevention is better than cure, and there are steps you can take to look after your mental health during recovery from an injury before you reach a point where you need to seek help. A review of studies published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy suggests that mindfulness could be useful in helping rehabilitate people after injury. Adding mindfulness exercises into your daily routine during recovery could help stave off the first signs of anxiety or depression. 

Although not being able to exercise may weigh heavy on your mental health, ensuring your diet is balanced and contains enough nutrients to support your brain and body during the challenge you’re facing is important. The Mayo Clinic recommends those who are feeling depressed ensure they are eating enough fruits and vegetables. They also recommend asking your primary care provider if taking a vitamin D supplement could be beneficial for boosting your mood, too.

If you start to feel particularly low, worried, or hopeless, the earlier you seek help, the better.

Further resources

Nutritional Support for Exercise-Induced Injuries, Sports Medicine (2015)

Zinc and its importance for human health: An integrative review, Journal of Research in Medical Sciences (2013)

Mental health following traumatic physical injury: an integrative literature review, Injury (2013)

Mindfulness Interventions in Physical Rehabilitation: A Scoping Review, American Journal of Occupational Therapy (2016) 

India Bottomley

India Bottomley is a health and beauty writer whose work has been published in the likes of Cosmopolitan, Forbes, and Dazed Magazine. A lifelong skincare aficionado, India has been writing research-led pieces on trending skincare, makeup, and cosmetic procedures since 2016. She takes particular interest in the growing connection between tech and beauty, and has had pieces on the topic published in American Healthcare Journal. When not writing she can be found exploring national parks or at the beach chasing sunsets.