What is a contusion (or charley horse)?

This type of injury is very common in contact sports. An impact to the muscles can cause more damage than you might expect and should be treated with respect. The muscle is crushed against the bone. If not treated correctly or if treated too aggressively then Myositis Ossificans may result.

There are two types of contusion:

Intramuscular which is a tearing of the muscle within the sheath that surrounds it. This means that the initial bleeding may stop early (within hours) because of increased pressure within the muscle however the fluid is unable to escape as the muscle sheath prevents it. The result is considerable loss of function and pain which can take days or weeks to recover. You are not likely to see any bruising come out with this type – especially in the early stages.

Intermuscular which is a tearing of the muscle and part of the sheath surrounding it. This means that the initial bleeding will take longer to stop especially if you do not ice it. However recovery is often faster than intramuscular as the blood and fluids can flow away from the site of injury. You are more likely to see bruising come out with this one.

What are the symptoms of a charley horse?

  • It hurts because you have been whacked in the leg.
  • You might get swelling or bruising (see below).
  • Restricted movement is not uncommon.

After two to three days check:

  • If the swelling has not gone then you probably have an intramuscular injury.
  • If the bleeding has spread and caused bruising away from the site of the injury then you probably have an intermuscular injury.
  • If you are more able to contract the muscle you probably have an intermuscular injury.
  • Can you feel a deformation in the muscle or a gap ?

It is important the correct diagnosis is made because if you try to exercise on a complete rupture, or a bad intramuscular injury you can inhibit healing, make things worse or cause permanent disability. If you apply heat and massage in the early stages then you could get Myositis Ossificans (or bone forming within the muscle), then you are in trouble.

Like muscle strains, contusions are grade 1, 2 or 3 depending on the severity.

Grade 1: What does it feel like?

  • Tightness in the thigh.
  • Unable to walk properly.
  • Probably not much swelling.
  • Trying to straighten the knee against resistance probably won’t produce much pain.
  • Lying on front and bending the knee should allow you nearly a full range of motion.

What can the athlete do to combat charley horse?

  • Apply cold therapyand compression immediately. Use a compression bandage or heat retainer until you feel no pain.
  • See a sports injury professional.
  • Gentle pain free quadriceps stretching – hold for 30 secs, repeat 5 times daily.

What can a Sports Injury Professional or Doctor do?

  • Use sports massage techniques to speed up recovery (very important).
  • Use ultrasound and electrical stimulation.
  • Prescribe a rehabilitation programme.

Grade 2: What does it feel like?

  • Probably cannot walk properly.
  • Occasional sudden twinges of pain during activity.
  • Possible swelling.
  • Pressing in causes pain.
  • Straightening the knee against resistance causes pain.
  • Unable to fully bend the knee.

What can the athlete do?

  • Ice, compress, elevate, use crutches for 3 to 5 days.
  • See a sports injury professional.

What can a Sports Injury Specialist or Doctor do?

  • Use sports massage techniques to speed up recovery (very important).
  • Use ultrasound and electrical stimulation.
  • Prescribe a rehabilitation programme.

Grade 3: What does it feel like?

  • You will be unable to walk properly without the aid of crutches.
  • You will be in severe pain.
  • You will have bad swelling appear immediately.
  • A static contraction will be painful and might produce a bulge in the muscle.
  • Expect to be out of competition for 3 to twelve weeks.

What can the athlete do?

  • Seek medical attention immediately. R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate.) Use crutches.

What can a Sports Injury Specialist or Doctor do?

  • Use sports massage techniques to speed up recovery (very important).
  • Use ultrasound and electrical stimulation.
  • Prescribe a rehabilitation programme and monitor it.
  • Operate if needed.