Taking your time with acute injuries


Sam Blanchard

Lead Physio London, England.

One of the benefits of working in sport is that you usually get to see injuries first hand, the mechanism, the severity, even the initial management. We have discussed pitch side management before (here(1)) but what about the day, or days, following? Are we doing enough to aid the healing processes in the early stages, or perhaps too much? With our best intentions of helping an injured athlete, are we over looking the importance of “protection”?

This blog discusses the assessment of those more serious injuries – the ones that require athletes to stop in their tracks, cease the game / training. Not those little niggles that walk in at the end of the day.


Reasoning with the history:

Knowledge of the mechanism of injury can greatly aid your management throughout the later stages of your treatment. Muscular injuries for example, can be simply divided into two traumatic categories; direct (laceration and contusion) and indirect (strains) (Huard et al 2002 (here(2)); Petersen & Holmlich 2005 (here(3))).

Appreciating the differences in these mechanisms will certainly influence your return to train criteria later on, but what about in the acute settings? Would your treatment change on day 1 or 2 with these different mechanisms? Skeletal muscles are built of basic structural elements, myofibers. Individual myofibrils are surrounded by the endomysium and bundles of myofibrils are surrounded by the perimysium (Haurd et al 2002). Lower grade injuries such as exercise induced muscle fatigue, will only affect the myofibrils, resulting in raised creatine kinease levels (Ahmad et al 2013 here(4)).

Regardless of the mechanism, damage to the fascia and extracellular matrix would be consistent with a higher grade injury and would see the release of muscle enzymes, destruction of collagen and proteoglycans as well as the presence of inflammation (Huard et al 2002; Ahmad et al 2013). The formation of haematomas in combination with inflammation can create an ischaemic environment, increasing the risk of further muscle damage (Ahmad et al 2013).

There seems to be an false sense of urgency created in these acute situations, especially at the elite level where time lost to injury means big money and with that brings an extra level of stress and pressure to the therapist, the athlete & the coach. But the injury has happened.. we can’t change that! We can certainly make it worse though. What are we expecting to find and see with our immediate objective tests? Lets say we have just seen someone recoil, fall to the floor clutching their hamstring, unable to walk off the field of play.. is a straight leg raise or resisted knee flexion test going to tell us something we didn’t already know? OK, so maybe we want to give all parties an idea of how bad this is.

“Do you think its grade one or two?”


There are numerous injury classification systems currently used in practice, although traditional classifications can be confusing. Ahmad et al (2013) describe 3 grades of injury from mild to severe, with one set of definitions relating to clinical presentation but with differing definitions depending on the influence of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

When I was training, we used the Gr I, II & III system that was disseminated by Peetrons in 2002 (here(5)). In 2012, the Munich consensus group (paper here(6)) sought to clarify the term “strain” and provide a structured classification system for clinicians. Table 1 is an overview of the existing classification systems pre-2012 that are widely used in the literature as well as clinical practice.

O’Donoghue 1962Ryan 1969 (initially for quadriceps)Takebayashi 1995, Peetrons 2002 (Ultrasound-based)Stoller 2007 (MRI-based)
Grade INo appreciable tissue tearing, no loss of function or strength, only a low-grade inflammatory responseTear of a few muscle fibres, fascia remaining intactNo abnormalities or diffuse bleeding with/without focal fibre rupture less than 5% of the muscle involvedMRI-negative=0% structural damage. Hyperintense oedema with or without hemorrhage
Grade IITissue damage, strength of the musculotendinous unit reduced, some residual functionTear of a moderate number of fibres, fascia remaining intactPartial rupture: focal fibre rupture more than 5% of the muscle involved with/without fascial injuryMRI-positive with tearing up to 50% of the muscle fibres. Possible hyperintense focal defect and partial retraction of muscle fibres
Grade IIIComplete tear of musculotendinous unit, complete loss of functionTear of many fibres with partial tearing of the fasciaComplete muscle rupture with retraction, fascial injuryMuscle rupture=100% structural damage. Complete tearing with or without muscle retraction
Grade IVXComplete tear of the muscle and fascia of the muscle–tendon unitXX

Table 1: Descriptions of muscle classification systems used clinically From Mueller-Wohlfahrt et al (2012)


The Munich consensus established that there was disparaging definitions amongst clinicians regarding the term “strain” and also the classification of injury. The rise of imaging to support clinical findings further added to the confusion of defining a Grade I injury that may not be present on MRI. Amongst many irregularities with the classification systems in Table 1, there was the vague nature of defining when one grade becomes another. As a result, Mueller-Wohlfahrt et al (2012) produced a new classification system that included delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) & contusions and allowed clinicians greater manoeuvrability in diagnosing muscle injuries. In 2014, this was taken a step further by Noel Pollock and colleagues at British Athletics (paper here(7)) (he explains why much better than I could, here(8) on this BJSM podcast).

“If you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them” – Dalai Lama


I’m pretty sure he just referenced the Dalai Lama…

So with all this confusion regarding classification ,what are we supposed to say to the athlete and what are we to do? Things always look bad in the initial stages. Generally if there is pain on the way to the treatment room (if they have stopped playing, then there almost certainly will be) how much more do you need to know? This is where the mechanism & history is key. It may be required to rule out any bony injury at this stage, but again, if you have seen them pull up and clutch a muscle belly then that may not be essential – a bonus of being pitch side to observe such things. What about ligamentous injuries? Well do we need to assess instability today? Is there a chance that we could make something that is stable unstable by repeatedly testing it in the early stages?

Even if we think its severe, like a complete ACL, most surgeons won’t operate while there is active swelling anyway. Some specific injuries DO require this, hand injuries for example may require more immediate attention from an orthopedic surgeon. Or total syndesmosis ruptures that usually require an operation within 2 weeks. (A good discussion on this injury was had recently by the PT Inquest guys here(9))

In the very acute stages (I’m talking first day or two) our role is to help reduce and minimize pain, reduce risk of secondary injury and ensure the athlete is safe to mobilize at home independently. What do we gain by giving them a classification of injury there and then?

“Lets let the swelling and pain settle down, get you comfortable and in a day or two we will be able to be more accurate with our assessment and diagnosis” – I think thats a pretty reasonable thing to say on the day of an injury and I’m yet to have any complaints from athletes, providing you explain why you are doing this. I’m not going to expose myself to sensitivity and specificity of tests because I will undoubtedly get it wrong, but in the heat of the moment, when everything hurts, you will almost certainly find false positives in tests – resulting in inaccurate diagnosis.


I’ll admit, this takes a bit of confidence. When the treatment room is full of staff, other athletes, the injured athlete themselves. To stand there and hardly do anything seems counter intuitive. But take a breath and ask yourself, “what do I NEED to know at this very moment?” It shouldn’t be, “What tests do I know that I could use here” – these two questions are very subtly different but the actions that follow them are huge. You aren’t there to show the room what assessment skills you have, not on day one. Respect the injury.

The next couple of days can also tell you a lot of information without you needing to pull and prod on the table. Whats the 24 hour pattern of pain? Any sign of inflammation? Yes? Then whats a prolonged assessment going to do other than promote more inflammation. Check Aggravating / easing factors or limiting ADLs – getting on and off the toilet seat without excruciating pain may be enough info that you don’t need to assess a squat today. Again, be comfortable treating what you do know, treat the inflammation and the pain. When that settles, we can begin to explore a bit more specifically. Will a positive test today get them back to training quicker? No.


What about treatments?

The classic PRICE guidelines have now been superseded by the POLICE (Protect, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, Elevation) guidelines (here(10)). I’ve previously debated the clinical relevance of ice here(11) and regular readers of this blog (mum and my mate Conor) are probably familiar with my interest in Optimal Loading. Regardless of if you use PRICE or POLICE, one thing we seem to overlook is the very first letter. Protect. Protect the injury from secondary damage and unnecessary pain. This may mean not doing very much at all. Consider the nociceptive input of us repeatedly prodding the injury, whether its part of assessment or treatment. Again, we go back to the pressures of sport – to have an athlete sat there doing nothing can be uncomfortable for the staff and boring for the athlete. This is where the creativity of “optimal loading” comes in handy. Protect the injury, keep the rest of the athlete busy.



I’m not suggesting we just sit and wait for weeks hoping they get better on their own, but just try and think about why you want to assess something and how is that answer going to influence your management on this day. I appreciate that objective measures are going to be beneficial, but just take the ones you need. Now obviously, if symptoms drastically improve over night, we can be a bit more direct with our assessment. It’s here we can start to expand our objective measures.

  • Don’t rush to a diagnosis or classification (have the differentials in the back of your mind or discuss them with colleagues / club doctors)
  • Don’t over assess for the sake of it (do enough to keep the athlete safe but minimize effects of injury)
  • Don’t over treat (sometimes, less is more!)

Remember, this isn’t aimed at those little niggly injuries that DO warrant further assessment – in these cases a thorough assessment may actually help reduce the risk of a full blown injury. Instead, this is for those injuries that you know in the back of your mind are out for a few days / weeks. If anything, the more severe (duration) the injury, the less acute assessment required perhaps? Just remember to exclude all those nasties!!

I appreciate I’ve probably given more questions than answers in this blog, but that was the aim. This wasn’t supposed to be a recipe but has hopefully sparked some questions about your clinical reasoning.


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About the Author


Sam Blanchard

Lead Physio London, England.

Sam is a physiotherapist working in full time elite sport, having worked in multiple team based sports in the UK and the USA. He is a published author of theoretical models for rehabilitation as well as a contributing author in Clinical Sports Medicine 5th Ed. Sam shares his thoughts on clinical reasoning in physiotherapy and strength & conditioning via his blog post plinthsandplatforms.wordpress.com and lectures in the UK.


  1. https://plinthsandplatforms.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/pitch-side-management-in-sport-a-pov-from-a-bucket-sponge-man/
  2. http://jbjs.org/content/84/5/822.extract
  3. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/39/6/319.abstract
  4. http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/05/22/0363546513487063.abstract
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11868072
  6. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2012/10/25/bjsports-2012-091448.full
  7. http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/18/1347.abstract
  8. https://soundcloud.com/bmjpodcasts/the-british-athletics-muscle-injury-classification-what-can-we-learn-from-world-class-athletics
  9. http://ptpodcast.com/pt-inquest-episode-71-high-ankle-sprains/
  10. http://www.sajsm.org.za/index.php/sajsm/article/view/467/438
  11. https://plinthsandplatforms.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/cryotherapy-therapeutic-but-is-it-clinically-relevant/

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