Sports injuries come in two categories: acute (ie, you go in for a tackle and pull your hamstring) or chronic (you develop Achilles tendonitis from running in poor shoes on hard pavements). In both cases, the first port of call is the Rice strategy - Rice being an acronym for "rest, ice, compression and elevation". To use ice effectively, aim for 15 minutes' exposure every hour for the first three hours after you sustain the injury - or as often as is practical.
"If it's not possible to submerge the injured part in a mix of ice and water, freeze a paper cup full of water and use it to massage the area," says osteopath Simon Freedman. Use an elastic bandage or sleeve (Lycra shorts and tights also work) to compress the area - this will help reduce bloodflow and swelling - and, if possible, elevate the injury above your heart. While it's important to rest the injury, that doesn't mean you have to glue yourself to the sofa. "Sometimes, total rest isn't the best thing," says therapist Ralph Hydes, "because some movement can be beneficial in helping the circulation and healing process."
Consult an expert
In theory, your GP should be the first person you see when injury strikes but, unless you have a doctor with a special knowledge of sports injuries, you may find that you are told only to rest and wait. If you're itching to get back in the game, it's advisable to go straight to someone with specialist knowledge who can not only help you get over the injury, but can also find out what caused it and then advise you how to avoid the same thing happening again.
By the way, "specialist knowledge" does not mean the over-opinionated bloke at the running club or your cute gym instructor - you need a sports medicine professional, such as a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor, all of whom have governing bodies through which you can find a qualified practitioner in your area.
Take a remedy
"Inflammation is the body's natural response to an injury," Freedman says. "The problem is, the body tends to overreact, meaning it can take longer to recover from the inflammation than from the injury." That's where anti-inflammatories - be they natural remedies such as arnica or over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen - come in. Take these regularly, but don't use them for more than seven to 10 days - by then, the drug will have done its job and continued use will only mask the pain. Never take drugs to enable you to continue training through an injury.
Research in the Journal Of Sports Science shows that a positive outlook - specifically optimism, hardiness and high self-esteem - can help you recover from an injury more quickly. "Athletes who recover most quickly tend to be highly motivated, take an active role in their recovery and adhere to their rehabilitation protocol," says sports psychologist Professor Daniel Gould.
"Healing imagery, positive self-statements and stress management have also been associated with quicker recovery." Drowning your sorrows, on the other hand, has not. "Booze will only increase inflammation and delay the healing process," Freedman says. Incidentally, you are more likely to get injured if you are under psychological stress.
You might feel like consoling yourself with a nice, hot bath, but try not to succumb. "It feels nice for half an hour, but ultimately the heat will make the inflammation worse," Freedman says. Hydes agrees: "Heat might help soothe discomfort," he says, "but icing is technically a better way to treat the injury." The same goes for other methods of applying heat, such as hot-water bottles or warming muscle rubs.
Do what you're told
It's amazing how many of us spend time and money on seeing an expert, then don't take their advice. "It's incredibly important to do the follow-up exercises you are given, post-treatment, to maintain the carry-over benefit from the appointment," says chartered physiotherapist Sarah Connors. "Continue with all the exercises or stretches you are told to do even when the injury has stopped hurting, because this is now potentially an area of weakness and the injury may recur." Also make sure you understand how to do the exercises you are given - take notes, ask questions and, if necessary, draw diagrams. "If you are given too many, ask which are the most specific," Connors says.
Book a massage
Once the acute stage of a soft-tissue injury has passed, sports massage can aid the healing process. "Sports massage helps realign muscle fibres that have been damaged and prevents knots forming," Hydes says. "It can also boost circulation, allowing more nutrients from the blood to get to the damaged areas." Don't expect scented oils and dolphin music, though - sports massage can be an intense, even painful, experience. Visit sportsmassageassociation.org to find a qualified practitioner.