How long does it take to heal an injury

How Long Do Injuries Take to Heal?

Commonly, when we treat patients with injuries, we get asked this question: “How long will this take to heal?” In this article, we first discuss the healing phases that tissues go through after an injury. Next, we reveal ways for you to optimize healing. Finally, discover how long it takes injuries like yours to heal.

Injuries to the Musculoskeletal System Heal Slower

muscles tendon ligament and articular cartilage heal slower
The musculoskeletal system: bone, muscle, tendon, ligament and cartilage.

We’re used to watching a wound on our skin heal. Under normal circumstances, it’s all healed up within a week or two. The musculoskeletal system goes through the same phases of healing, however the time frames are much longer.

Phases of Injury Healing

There are four phases of healing that injured tissues go through. Keep in mind, the duration of each phase can vary depending on the severity of the injury and the tissues affected. Notice that each of these phases overlap. In other words, the body is undergoing more than one phase at any given time until around six months after your injury.

Phases of soft tissue injury healing.
Adapted from Watson, (2006). Tissue Repair. The basic response to tissue injury
  • Hemostasis: bleeding begins immediately, generally resolves in 6-8 hours, but highly vascular tissues can bleed 1-2 days
  • Inflammatory: begins within hours of injury – lasts several days
  • Proliferation: begins within 24-48 hours after injury, reaches peak at 2-3 weeks, continues for several months
  • Remodeling: starts several days after injury, can last for 1 year or more

Regeneration vs. Repair

Healing by regeneration, lizards can do it.
Lizards can regenerate their tails.
Photo source: ID 46935660 © Gabriele Riffaldi | Dreamstime.com

Healing through regeneration refers to substitution of the exact same tissue. A great example is a lizard who gets it’s tail traumatically cut off. Lizards have special stem cells that enable them to grow a whole new tail. By the end of this article, you might wish you were a lizard!

Tissues in the body repair like repairing drywall.
Healing through repair is like patching a hole in drywall.

Healing through repair refers to fibrosis or scar tissue formation. In other words, tissues are replaced with different cells than the structure being repaired. Think about patching a small hole in drywall. The substance you’re using to repair the wall isn’t drywall. But it can be molded and sanded to look and function just like the rest of the wall. It’s an adequate repair, for sure. But, we know that patched hole isn’t as solid and stable as the rest of the wall.

As it turns out, most tissues of the musculoskeletal system are able to heal through a combination of regeneration and repair. And some, can only heal via repair. Remember, the more regeneration a tissue undergoes, the more closely it resembles it’s original makeup.

Optimizing Injury Healing: Using Forces

Forces optimize injury healing.
Stretching, strengthening, weight bearing and eccentric loading. This knee is being exposed to some awesome forces that will help it heal.

Fortunately, physical therapists have ways to trick the body into making a stronger repair, and even stimulate regeneration. In our world, it all comes down to mechanical forces. Forces like friction, tension, and compression work at the cellular level to prepare the healed tissue to handle the demands we put on our bodies.

Real world examples of these forces include:

Over time, repetition of these forces optimizes the flexibility and strength of the repaired area. Consequently, forces are needed to prepare the healed tissue to handle normal loads.

Should You Take NSAIDs After an Injury?

NSAIDs? Not so fast.

If you look for advice about what to do after an injury, you’re sure to hear someone suggest Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Interestingly, there’s poor evidence for using them after a musculoskeletal injury. In a nutshell, they alter the natural healing response and have long-term negative impacts on healing your injury.

Do You Need Rest After an Injury?

Rest isn’t proven to improve injury healing.

Some injuries require rest or immobilization if they’re considered unstable. You need to visit a licensed healthcare professional to determine that. But in general, your body will heal better and faster the sooner you get moving (remember those forces?).

Certainly, you can resume moving the parts of your body that aren’t injured. What else can you do early on? Focus on things like breathing exercises and managing your swelling. But ultimately, it’s best to get specific guidance about your injury from a physical therapist.

How Long Do Different Tissues Take to Heal?

TissueMethod of HealingTime-Frame
BoneRegeneration/Repair6-8 weeks – on average for a healthy adult
TendonRegeneration/RepairMonths
Years
Complete remodeling depends on loading and how chronic the injury is
MuscleRegeneration/RepairTissue damage still detected up to a year on MRI
LigamentRegeneration/RepairLaxity noted 6-12 months following injury
Severity dependent – up to 1 year
Articular CartilageRepair6-12 months

References

Stem Cells and Lizard Tails

Musculoskeletal Tissue Healing: Updates and Critical Clinical Decision Making; Online Course; June 27, 2013; Michael T O’Donnell PT, DPT and Stephen Reischl PT, DPT, OCS

Modelling of bone fracture and strength at different length scales: a review

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for athletes: An Update

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