A bruise is an area of skin discoloration. A bruise occurs when small blood vessels break and leak their contents into the soft tissue beneath the skin.
There are three types of bruises:
- Subcutaneous -- beneath the skin
- Intramuscular -- within the belly of the underlying muscle
- Periosteal -- bone bruise
Bruises can last from days to months, with the bone bruise being the most severe and painful.
Bruises are often caused by falls, sports injuries, car accidents, or blows received by other people or objects.
If you take a blood thinner, like aspirin or warfarin (Coumadin), you are likely to bruise more easily.
The main symptoms are pain, swelling, and skin discoloration. The bruise begins as a pinkish red color that can be very tender to touch. It is often difficult to use the muscle that has been bruised. For example, a deep thigh bruise is painful when you walk or run.
Eventually, the bruise changes to a bluish color, then greenish-yellow, and finally returns to the normal skin color as it heals.
- DO NOT attempt to drain the bruise with a needle.
- DO NOT continue running, playing, or otherwise using the painful, bruised part of your body.
- DO NOT ignore the pain or swelling.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider immediately if you feel extreme pressure in a bruised part of your body, especially if the area is large or very painful. This may be due to a condition known as "compartment syndrome." Increased pressure on the soft tissues and structures beneath the skin can decrease the supply of blood and oxygen to the tissues. This is potentially life threatening and you should receive emergency care promptly.
Also call your doctor if:
- You are bruising without any injury, fall, or other reason.
- There are signs of infection around the bruised area including streaks of redness, pus or other drainage, or fever.
- Place ice on the bruise to help it heal faster and to reduce swelling. Place the ice in a cloth -- DO NOT place ice directly on the skin. Apply the ice for up to 15 minutes per hour.
- Keep the bruised area raised above the heart, if practical. This helps keep blood from pooling in the bruised tissue.
- Try to rest the bruised body part by not overworking your muscles in that area.
- If needed, take acetaminophen (Tylenol) to help reduce pain.
In the rare instance of "compartment syndrome," surgery frequently needs to be performed to relieve the extreme buildup of pressure.
Because bruises are usually the direct result of an injury, the following are important safety recommendations:
- Teach children how to be safe.
- Be mindful to avoid falls around the house. For example, be careful when climbing on ladders or other objects. Avoid standing or kneeling on counter-tops.
- Wear seat belts in motor vehicles.
- Wear proper sports equipment to pad those areas most frequently bruised (thigh pads, hip guards, and elbow pads in football and hockey; shin guards and knee pads in soccer and basketball).
Ballas M, Kraut EH. Bleeding and bruising: a diagnostic work-up. Am Fam Physician. 2008 Apr 15;77(8):1117-24.
Brinker MR, O’Connor DP, Almekinders LC, et al. Physiology of Injury to Musculoskeletal Structures: 1. Muscle and Tendon Injury. In: DeLee JC, Drez D Jr, Miller MD, eds. DeLee and Drez’s Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2009:chap 1, section A.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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