If you play sports or exercise regularly, you probably have experienced some sort of injury. Hopefully yours was just a minor muscle strain, joint sprain or soreness that didn’t prevent you from continuing your exercise program. It is always best to address minor injuries before they progress to cause more lasting damage.
The most common recommendation for treating a minor exercise injury is to use ice to reduce swelling and speed healing. For example, an ankle sprain might be treated by sitting with the injured leg elevated while applying ice; later the joint might be wrapped with athletic tape to provide support and further reduce inflammation. This combination is called RICE – rest, ice, compression, elevation – and makes intuitive sense.
Several other treatments for sports injuries have become more commonly used, thanks in part to their use by professional and Olympic athletes. This is also due to the realization that inflammation is a key component in tissue repair and reducing it with ice therapy might actually interfere with healing. More and more sports medicine professionals are using modalities – voodoo flossing, cupping and kinesio taping – other than (or in addition to) RICE to treat many injuries.
The benefits of compression for injury healing can be achieved by tightly wrapping an injured area with a rubber band, called “floss,” for a short time, usually less than a minute. This technique, commonly called voodoo flossing, is used to increase joint mobility and speed healing of minor injuries. Tightly wrapping a joint does has several potential effects by which it can improve movement and reduce pain. This includes allowing tissues to move more freely and increasing blood flow to the injured area.
Cupping gained much attention when swimmer Michael Phelps appeared at a race in the 2016 Olympics with large red welts on his back. He wasn’t hurt, as many feared. Rather, he was using cupping as a technique to treat injury and improve performance. Cupping literally involves the application of glass or plastic cups to the skin for several minutes, typically 5 to 15 minutes. Using either vacuum or heat, the cups pull the skin away from the underlying muscle tissue, increasing blood flow and improving movement. While cupping may be new to most of us, it has been used since ancient times and factors prominently in traditional Chinese medicine.
While voodoo flossing and cupping have a role in treating injuries and improving performance in the training room, there is a relatively new modality that can be used during exercise to enhance performance. Kinesio tape, also called K-tape, is applied over specific muscles to reduce pain and improve movement. The tape pulls the skin away from the underlying muscle, which increases blood flow and enhances movement, much like cupping. The difference is that kinesio tape can be used during exercise, as many people first saw on the shoulders of beach volleyball players in the 2008 Olympics.
While many sports medicine professionals still recommend RICE as a first-line treatment for minor injuries, they are increasingly utilizing these alternative treatments. With a little training, people can use these techniques at home to treat some of their own minor injuries.
Obviously, it is important to learn how to properly do these treatments and evaluate whether they are working. Improper treatment can delay healing and may make some injuries worse, so these treatments might be best done by trained professionals. And some injuries do require attention by sports medicine professionals. That said, if you are looking for an injury treatment beyond RICE, voodoo flossing, cupping and kinesio tape might be worth trying.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.