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By Velia Lozick, OTR/L

When an orthopedic injury is sustained, swelling will most likely occur. Also known as edema, swelling forms as a part of the body’s natural healing process. At the site of injury or surgery, the body sends a surge of cells and nutrients to the affected area. These cells help repair the site, and often times, give the area a “puffy” or “swollen” appearance.

Typically, we will see edema go down about two weeks after an injury or surgery. However, for some people, it may take months [1]. For those who are continuing to see edema, their therapist may recommend treatments to help decrease and prevent additional swelling.

Here are six common treatments which are effective at managing edema.

NOTE: Before trying any of the following techniques, please speak with your healthcare provider and therapy team about precautions and a recommended edema management program.

1. Ice

In the early stages of healing, ice is helpful at stopping development of new edema. Apply an ice pack to the site for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Be sure to add a barrier between your skin and the ice pack to protect your skin. You can use a towel or pillow case as a barrier [2].

2. Elevation

Elevating the affected body part above heart level is effective for decreasing edema. Elevation uses gravity to pull edema back into the body. You can elevate the affected site using a pillow or a wedge.

3. Compression

In the early stage of healing, compression using wraps or gloves may help push fluid out of the swollen tissue. Later in the healing process, compression wraps or gloves help keep edema down. Speak with your therapist to determine the best wear schedule when using compression wraps or gloves.

4. Physical Agent Modalities

There are a series of treatments, called physical agent modalities, which may help at reducing edema. Your therapist may use electrical stimulation, low level laser and ultrasound, to reduce swelling. These treatments are typically performed in clinic.

5. Exercises

Keeping muscles moving will encourage blood flow and help the body rid itself of edema. It will also ensure muscles and tissue structures remain nourished and active. If the hand is affected, one exercise commonly prescribed are tendon glides. These place tendons at maximum stretch assisting with nourishment and reducing stiffness [3]. Speak with your therapist about which exercises are best for you to maintain motion and decrease edema.

6. Massage

The body has a system, called the lymphatic system, which reduces edema when activated3. This system is activated with specific massage techniques along lymphatic pathways. When performing massage, do so with a light amount of pressure — as if you are trying to just move the skin. Using too much pressure can block, and sometimes damage, the lymphatic system. Speak with your therapist about a self-massage program which will work best for you.

Using the above techniques can help manage and reduce edema. Remember to work with your therapist to develop a custom edema management program. We are here to help you every step of the way. To learn more about treatment options or to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists, call us at 800.698.1280.


[1] Cooper, C. (2013). Fundamentals of hand therapy: clinical reasoning and treatment guidelines for common
    diagnoses of the upper extremity. Elsevier Health Sciences.

[2] Skirven, T. M., Osterman, A. L., Fedorczyk, J., & Amadio, P. C. (2011). Rehabilitation of the hand and
    upper extremity, 2-volume set E-book: expert consult. Elsevier Health Sciences.

[3] Pedretti, L. W., Pendleton, H. M. H., & Schultz-Krohn, W. (2013). Pedretti's occupational therapy:
    Practice skills for physical dysfunction. St. Louis, Mo: Elsevier.


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