What causes a bruise?
You’ve had a bump, blow, or knock to your body that was hard enough to damage small blood vessels under your skin. Blood leaks out of these blood vessels, called capillaries, and seeps into the surrounding tissue. For a while you see the traditional black-and-blue colors, which are the trademark of most bruises. As the pooled blood gradually breaks down, the colors take on a full palette of hues, from purple to green and yellow. Normally, bruises will fade away in 10 to 14 days without any treatment.
Though bruises eventually go away on their own, you can take steps to reduce the pain and encourage faster fading. First, reduce blood flow to the area with ice and compression to minimize discoloration. Next, use heat to boost circulation and help clear away the pooled blood. At the same time, as long as the skin isn’t broken, a number of herbal ointments and compresses can help erase the evidence of a klutzy moment that left its mark.
Speed the paling process
• Apply ice as soon as possible. If you cool the blood vessels around the bruised area, less blood will leak out into the surrounding tissue. Many flexible ice packs are available, specifically designed for injuries, and most rough-and-tumble athletes have the foresight to keep a couple of them in the freezer. If you’re not so equipped, soak a cloth in ice-cold water and lay it over the bruise for 10 minutes. Or use a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a towel. Take it off after 10 minutes, and wait 20 minutes or so before you reapply the ice pack so you don’t overchill the skin underneath.
• If you’ve bruised your arm or leg, immediately wrap an elastic bandage around the bruised part. By squeezing the tissues underneath, the bandage helps prevent blood vessels from leaking. The bruise won’t be quite as severe.
• Reduce blood flow to the bruise to minimize discoloration. If you bruise your leg, for instance, and you can take a time-out, settle into a couch or lounge chair with your leg up on a pillow, above heart level. If it’s your arm that’s bruised, try to keep it propped up above heart level whenever you’re sitting.
Turn up the heat
• After cooling the bruise for 24 hours, start applying heat to bring more circulation to the area and help clear away the pooled blood. Use an electric heating pad for 20 minutes several times a day. Be sure to follow the instructions on the heating pad: To avoid burns, it should go on top of—not under—the bruised limb.
• Alternatively, you can apply a warm compress either under or over the bruised area. A hot-water bottle will work. Or use a compress that can be heated in a microwave, such as Thera-Temp Microwavable Moist Heat Pack, available at medical supply stores and on Internet sites.
• A warm compress of comfrey can also offer comfort. Comfrey contains compounds that reduce swelling and promote the rapid growth of new cells. Make a warm herbal solution by pouring 2 cups of boiling water over 30 grams of dried comfrey leaves or 60 grams of fresh leaves. Steep for 10 minutes, then strain. This is for an external use only—it’s not for drinking. Soak a gauze pad or a washcloth in the solution and apply it to the bruise for an hour. (Off-limits…if the skin is broken or you have an open wound.)
• Vinegar mixed with warm water, will help the healing process. Vinegar increases blood flow near the skin’s surface, so it may help dissipate the blood that has pooled in the bruise area. Witch hazel will also do the trick.
Try a natural rub
• Arnica is an herb that has long been recommended for bruises. It contains a compound that reduces inflammation and swelling. Apply arnica ointment or gel to the bruise daily.
• Take a handful of fresh parsley leaves, crush them, and spread them over the bruise. Wrap the area with an elastic bandage. Some experts claim that parsley decreases inflammation, reduces pain, and can make the bruise fade more quickly.
• Gently rub St. John’s wort oil into the bruise. Though St. John’s wort is often taken as a capsule or tea for mild depression, the oil has long been known as a wound healer. It’s rich in tannins, astringents that help shrink tissue and control capillary bleeding. For the best effect, start this treatment soon after the bruise occurs, and repeat it three times a day.
• Look for vitamin K cream in the drugstore. Your body needs vitamin K to help with blood clotting. Rub it into the bruise twice a day to prevent further bleeding.
Take dietary supplements
• Bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapples, actually “digests” proteins involved in causing inflammation and inducing pain. Take 250 to 500 milligrams of bromelain daily between meals until the bruise has faded.
• Use a homeopathic version of arnica. As soon as you get the bruise, start taking one dose every four hours. Take four doses the first day, then reduce your dosages to two or three pills daily as the bruise fades.
The power of prevention
• If you feel like you bruise too easily, you may be deficient in vitamin C. It strengthens capillary walls so they’re less likely to leak blood and make a bruise. Get additional vitamin C by eating more peppers and citrus fruit, and take a multivitamin.
• Increase your intake of flavonoids by eating more carrots, apricots, and citrus fruits. These help vitamin C work better in the body. Grape-seed extract is also a rich supplier of flavonoids. Take 20 to 50 milligrams daily.
• People who are susceptible to bruising may be deficient in vitamin K, which you can get from broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and leafy green vegetables, as well as from supplements.
Be selective about pain relievers
Don’t reach for the aspirin bottle when you’ve just gotten a bruise—it can make things worse. Aspirin thins the blood, which means it will more easily gather under the skin and make that bruise even more alarming. The same applies to ibuprofen (found in Advil and Motrin). If you think you’re getting too many bruises and you’re also taking aspirin regularly (to reduce your risk of heart attack, for example) talk to your doctor about the problem but don’t stop taking the aspirin on your own. For pain relief when you have a bruise, use acetaminophen, the ingredient found in Tylenol.
Should you see a doctor?
If your bruises appear mysteriously—that is, in places that you haven’t even injured—be sure to see your doctor. Sometimes bruises are the mark of serious conditions like hemophilia, leukemia, and aplastic anemia. Consult your doctor if you have a bruise at a joint and it leads to swelling, if a bruise doesn’t fade after a week, if it’s accompanied by severe pain or fever, or if you get a bruise on the side of your head over your ear (this area fractures easily).