How To Move Without Pain

How to Reduce Joint Swelling

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Understanding how inflammation works, and specifically knowing how to reduce swelling is one of the most preventative measures we can take. The best way to bring down swelling is all about being proactive so the injury don’t get worse. 

Immediately after an injury, the body goes into action, surrounding and reacting to the tissue damage. Our body’s ability to heal itself is one of the most powerful things it can do. The innate ability of the body to react to tissue irritation, injury is what keeps us moving, strong and active. The length of time for healing is an individual process some of us heal faster than others) but we all can heal.

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This process is initiated seconds after the injury to begin removing damaged tissues and cells, and bringing in healing oxygen and proteins the tissues need. This increase in blood flow to the area will cause an increase in swelling and fluid within the tissues, and often the surrounding area will bewarm to the touch.  Additionally, this increased blood flow may lead to bruising in the area, depending on the injury.

Swelling is normal and necessary to the tissue healing process in the initial phase, yet swelling does need to be monitored and managed to make sure it does not have a negative effect on the surrounding tissues.   Simply stated, prolonged swelling and pain can lead to a limited ability to contract the muscles in the surrounding area to their fullest ability.  This is known as muscle atrophy  and can potentially  lead to muscle weakness. This weakness can in-turn cause increased pressure on joints, especially the hips, knees, and ankles where we need these joints and muscles to move our body weight.

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Chronic swelling can also cause tissue changes, like tightness and increased scar tissue.  Tissue tightness can make the joint feel tight and difficult to move. Sometimes this loss of flexibility can cause increased pressure in the joint when moving, standing, reaching, and walking. 

Chronic swelling can also cause prolonged pressure within the tissue, and if there is enough swelling for a long time, you could also see changes in circulation, decreased sensation, or even difficulty standing up, walking, or poor balance.

Giving the tissues the best chance to heal requires rest and monitoring the injury. The following tips will help reduce swelling and tissue pressure after an injury.

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Applying an ice-pack to an injury is the fastest way to deal with immediate swelling and reduce tissue pressure from swelling. It helps by restricting blood flow to the area and slowing down cellular metabolism. 

Ice can be applied using ice packs, ice cubes in a bag, a bag of frozen vegetables, rolling an ice cube right on the skin, or ice baths.  Care should be taken, however, to avoid potential skin injuries.  It is generally suggested to use a towel as a barrier between your skin and the ice pack.

Applying cold several times a day for 20 to 30 minutes at a time will keep swelling down, especially in the first several days. Make sure to look at the skin during icing (every 5 minutes)  and afterward to make sure skin irritation isn’t occurring. 

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Elevating a swollen injury just after an accident will help to reduce blood flow and therefore, limit swelling. Elevating the injured body part up to the level of the heart or above the heart will help keep the swelling from pooling in the joint. This elevation allows for gravity to assist in getting the excess blood away from the injury and back to the heart and lungs where it can be refreshed with oxygen.

For leg injuries, keep the legs elevated while seated or reclining so that excess fluid does not collect making it difficult for the heart to pump the fluid out. For arm injuries, try to rest the affected arm on a table or armrest of a chair so that it is above the level of your heart.


Applying direct pressure to an injury helps reduce swelling by restricting blood flow. Things like compression bandages, elastic bandages, ace wraps, and TED stockings can provide compression and help reduce swelling.  Compression can also help ease pain by keeping the injured area somewhat immobilized.

Acute swelling is a normal occurrence with injury, and is necessary for proper healing to occur, but if left uncontrolled, it can lead to further complications.  By following the above advice, we can be sure to allow the body to use its natural healing abilities to get us back out there doing the things we love to do!

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*Disclaimer: All information in this article is intended for instruction and informational purposes. The author(s) are not responsible for any harm or injury that may result.  This information is used to supplement not replace any advice you were provided from your doctor or another medical health professional.  No guarantees of specific results are expressly made or implied with this article.

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women sitting on ground looking at her swollen ankle