Swelling is essentially an overloaded transport system. In some cases, it is essential to have swelling or this excess fluid managed or moved along to enhance recovery and return to optional function.
Blood is transported throughout the body through two systems, the circulatory and lymphatic system.
The circulatory system refers to the heart pumping the blood out into the veins, the blood then transfers across capillaries out into the tissues and then back into the veins returning to the heart – essentially forming a ‘circle’ with the heart pumping it.
The lymphatic system is a one-way system that drains excess fluid from the skin, deeper to the tissues and returns it to the heart. The muscles contract and relax against the vessels to help to push the fluid along the vessels. Deep breathing helps to create internal pressure changes and move the fluid from high to low pressure. Massage, elevation above the level of the heart and compression also assist with fluid flow.
When you have an injury, more fluid is pumped to the area, which helps with initial healing. Our body has an innate system of protection and by having more swelling it limits how much we can move the injured part, essentially “protecting it.”
Over time, this fluid returns within the transport system (lymphatic and venous systems), however there are many times when it builds up in the tissues. With this excess fluid, the cells are further apart; this affects their delivery of nutrition and ability to remove waste products. It also limits how much a body part can move, which can cause changes to the joint structures over time. Additionally over time, stagnant fluid changes consistency from a watery consistency, to a more viscous thick consistency and then to a very firm dense consistency. This can cause pain and discomfort in the area of injury and the timeframe for this process differs for every individual.
We often hear people say, “But I’m taking anti-inflammatories.” These can be effective in the initial phases, however with the overload of fluid within the tissues, medication diuretics included, are not always the most effective method of reducing swelling.
Effective methods of reducing swelling include compression e.g. bandages, compression garments, compression wraps, taping, retrograde or lymphatic massage, range of movement and exercise and elevation above the level of the heart. It is important to deal with swelling early due to the loss of joint movement and stiffness that can develop.
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