The healing process

Wong Yat-hei
Wong Yat-hei |

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Sport therapist Chris Chan helps a patient get back on his feet at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University rehabilitation clinic. Photos: Ricky Chung

Sporting injuries require balanced treatment with the aim of making sure the joint regains strength, writes Wong Yat-hei

The traditional approach to a sprained ankle or a pulled muscle - or any sports injury - is to wrap the area in smelly, mud-like Chinese medicine poultice, but there are alternatives.

According to medical professionals, treating sports injuries is about more than just pain relief. Balanced treatment with the aim of regaining strength is the way to complete healing.

Chris Chan Chi-hung, deputy director of the Sport Rehabilitation Unit of The Hong Kong Jockey Club Sport Medicine and Health Sciences Centre at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says physiotherapists take the "Rice" approach to treating injuries such as sprained ankles.

'Rice stands for 'rest', 'ice', 'compression' and 'elevation', which are the fundamentals of treating acute sports injuries,' says Chan. 'Patients who come to us within 48 hours of the injury are usually considered acute and they will go through the Rice treatment.'

Most ankle sprains involve damaged ligaments. The ankle will be red, swollen, inflamed and painful. This requires rest and applying ice to ease the pain and reduce swelling. A compression boot is applied to hold the injured parts in place. Elevation helps ease pressure on the injury to allow it to heal.

After two days of rest, the injured joint will likely be stiff due to lack of movement. At this stage, exercise is required. Using electro-therapy or ultra-sound to enhance the blood flow to the injury will help reduce swelling. This is known as the sub-acute stage, which can last from three days to two weeks, depending on the seriousness of the injury.

Following the sub-acute stage is the chronic stage, which focuses on improving the strength of the injured joint. In the case of a sprained ankle, stretching exercises are good for the surrounding muscles, and weightlifting strengthens the quadriceps and hamstring. The final stage is helping the patient regain body balance.

'There's a simple exercise that involves getting the patient to stand on one foot, their body bent to one side with their eyes closed, while trying to stay balanced,' says Chan.

But Edmond Au Wai-chun, a registered traditional Chinese medical practitioner and owner of Musculoskeletal Clinic, says 'meridians' are key to treatment.

The meridian system in traditional Chinese medicine is like a circuitry that runs through the body, delivering energy - or qi - to all the organs and joints. Any disruption to this flow affects not only the injured area.

'When you get a sprained ankle or pull a muscle, the meridian system is disrupted and the body becomes unbalanced,' says Au, adding that the body's qi loses equilibrium, bringing discomfort not only to the limbs but also the internal organs.

The trick, according to Au, is to ensure any distortion caused by the injury is restored. He agrees with modern sports therapists that regaining body balance is important, but says the approach of Chinese medicine is different.

'A patient with a sprained ankle might need treatment starting at the neck or the back to restore the proper flow of qi,' says Au.

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