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Soft Tissue Injury: Symptoms, Types, Causes, and Treatment

The most common soft tissues injured are muscles, tendons, and ligaments. These injuries often occur during sports and exercise activities, but sometimes simple everyday activities can cause damage. Even with appropriate treatment, these injuries may require a prolonged time to heal.

What is Soft Tissue Injury?

Soft tissue injuries (STI) occur when trauma or overuse occurs to muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Most soft tissue injuries result from a sudden unexpected, or uncontrolled movement like stepping awkwardly off a curb and rolling over your ankle. 

Types of Soft Tissue Injury

Soft tissue injuries include the following conditions:

  • Sprains, especially of the ankle and wrist
  • Strains, especially in the back, calf, and hamstring
  • Golfer/tennis elbow
  • Contusions
  • Tendonitis
  • Bursitis

Even though soft tissue injuries can occur anywhere in the body, the ankles, knees, and wrists are especially vulnerable. These joints can turn inward, especially when you land sharply or twist from a fall. This sudden action places tension on the corresponding ligament, which can result in a sprain. By contrast, a strain affects the muscles and tendons. These injuries may occur when the body’s fibrous tissue or tears are stretched too far. Other injuries like tendonitis involve inflammation or irritation of muscles and tendons, stemming from stress or repetitive use that eventually manifests in pain.

A common factor connecting all soft tissue injuries, many can take an extended period to heal and may affect the body’s future performance.

Signs and Symptoms of Soft Tissue Injury

Symptoms of soft tissue injuries depend on the specific type of injury but often include general pain and swelling around the affected area. 

Other common symptoms are:

  • Muscle cramping
  • Weakness
  • Spasms
  • Lump or knot at the injury site
  • Joint instability
  • Inability to put weight on a limb

When soft tissue is damaged, there is usually immediate pain and immediate or delayed swelling. Stiffness is also very common as a result of the trauma and swelling. Bruising may also develop after 24 to 48 hours. In the case of moderate to severe soft tissue injuries of muscles, tendons, and ligaments around a joint, instability may be experienced, especially in weight-bearing joints like the hip, knee, and ankle.

What Causes Soft Tissue Injury?

Soft-tissue injuries fall into two basic categories: acute injuries and overuse injuries.

  • Acute injuries are caused by sudden trauma, such as a fall, twist, or blow to the body. Examples include sprains, strains, and contusions.
  • Overuse injuries occur gradually over time when an athletic or other activity is repeated so often that body areas do not have enough time to heal between occurrences. Tendinitis and bursitis are common soft-tissue overuse injuries.

Treatment, Management, and Prevention of Soft Tissue Injury

Injuries often occur when people suddenly increase their activities’ duration, intensity, or frequency. Many soft-tissue injuries can be prevented through proper conditioning and training. Other prevention tips include:

  • Use proper equipment. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes that let you move freely and are light enough to release body heat.
  • Aim for balanced fitness. Develop a balanced fitness program incorporating cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility. Add activities and new exercises cautiously. Whether you are sedentary or in good physical shape, try taking only a few actions at a time. Adding up to one or two new exercises per workout is best.
  • Warm-up. Warm up to prepare for exercise, even before stretching. Run in place for a few minutes, breathe slowly and deeply, or gently rehearse the motions of the movement to follow. Warming up increases heart and blood flow rates and loosens muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints.
  • Drink water. Drink enough water to prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Have a drink of water every 20 minutes or so while you exercise.
  • Cool down. Make cooling down the final phase of your exercise routine. It should take twice as long as your warm-up. 
  • Stretch. Begin stretches slowly and carefully until reaching a point of muscle tension. Hold each stretch for 10 to 20 seconds, then slowly and carefully release it. Inhale before each stretch and exhale as you release. Do each stretch only once. Never stretch to the point of pain, always maintain control, and never bounce on a fully stretched muscle.
  • Rest. Schedule regular days off from vigorous exercise and rest when tired. Fatigue and pain are good reasons not to exercise.
  • Avoid the weekend warrior syndrome. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. 

Recommended medication used for soft tissue injuries:

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