A contusion, commonly known as a bruise, is a type of injury that occurs when the soft tissues beneath the skin, such as muscles, blood vessels, and connective tissues, are damaged due to the impact of a blunt force. This damage leads to bleeding and discolouration of the skin, resulting in a visible and often painful mark. Contusions can happen in various situations, such as accidents, falls, sports injuries, or even minor bumps.1
Causes of Contusions
Blunt Force Trauma
Blunt force trauma is one of the primary causes of contusions. It occurs when the body is struck by an object with a broad or flat surface, such as a baseball bat, a hammer, or a rock. The forceful impact compresses the underlying soft tissues, leading to damage and bleeding. Common scenarios of blunt force trauma include altercations, physical assaults, or accidents involving heavy objects. The severity of contusions resulting from blunt force trauma can range from minor bruises to more extensive injuries, depending on the force and location of the impact.1
Falls are a common cause of contusions, particularly among the elderly and young children. When a person falls, they may land on a hard surface or collide with objects, leading to contusions on various body parts. For the elderly, falls can be particularly dangerous, as their skin may be more fragile, and contusions can sometimes be indicative of underlying health issues or balance problems. In young children, falls are a part of their developmental process as they learn to walk and explore their environment, making them susceptible to contusions as well.
Sports injuries frequently result in contusions, especially in contact sports like football, soccer, or hockey. Athletes are at risk of colliding with other players or being struck by equipment such as balls or sticks. These impacts can lead to contusions in muscles, joints, or bones. Contusions in sports are often referred to as "sports bruises" and can vary in severity. Athletes are trained to recognise and manage contusions, but proper protective gear and adherence to safety rules are essential for injury prevention.
Vehicle accidents, whether involving automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, or pedestrians, can lead to contusions due to the forces involved in the collision.
Signs and Symptoms
Pain and Tenderness
Pain and tenderness are among the most common and immediate symptoms of a contusion. When soft tissues are damaged due to blunt force trauma, nerve endings are stimulated, resulting in pain. The intensity of pain can vary depending on the severity of the contusion. Tenderness is often felt when pressure is applied to the affected area, and it can persist for some time after the injury. Pain and tenderness are early indicators that prompt individuals to seek medical attention and assessment.1
Swelling, also known as oedema, is another characteristic symptom of a contusion. It occurs due to the accumulation of fluid (usually blood) in the injured area. The body's natural response to injury is to increase blood flow to the damaged tissues, which can cause swelling. Swelling often leads to a feeling of tightness and discomfort in the affected area. The extent of swelling can vary depending on the severity of the contusion.
Bruising, or discolouration of the skin, is a visible sign of a contusion. It typically appears as a reddish or bluish-purple mark on the skin overlying the injured area. This discolouration results from the leakage of blood from damaged blood vessels beneath the skin. The colour of a bruise changes over time, starting with redness and gradually turning purple, green, and yellow as the body breaks down and reabsorbs the blood. The size and appearance of the bruise can vary based on the extent of tissue damage.2
Limited Range of Motion
A limited range of motion in the affected joint or muscle is a symptom often associated with more severe contusions. When contusions occur near joints or muscles, the swelling and pain can restrict movement.
Physical examination is often the initial step in diagnosing a contusion. Healthcare professionals, such as doctors or nurses, assess the injured area by carefully observing and palpating (feeling) it. During the examination, they may look for signs of contusions, including pain, tenderness, swelling, and bruising. They may also evaluate the range of motion in the affected joint or muscle. This hands-on assessment helps determine the location and extent of the contusion and guides further diagnostic tests and treatment decisions.2,4
Medical Imaging (X-rays, MRI, CT scan)
In some cases, medical imaging may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis of a contusion and assess the extent of underlying tissue damage.
Different imaging techniques serve various purposes:
- X-rays: X-rays are useful for assessing bone injuries, such as fractures or dislocations, which may accompany contusions. They can help rule out bone damage when a contusion occurs near a joint or bone.
- MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): MRI provides detailed images of soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It is particularly valuable when assessing deep contusions or injuries to structures beneath the skin. MRI can reveal the full extent of soft tissue damage, helping healthcare providers plan appropriate treatment strategies.
- CT scan (Computed Tomography): CT scans are typically used when there is suspicion of severe injury or complications, such as internal bleeding or damage to vital organs. CT scans offer cross-sectional images that can detect subtle internal injuries associated with contusions.
Differential diagnosis involves considering and ruling out other medical conditions or injuries that may present with similar symptoms to contusions. Some conditions that healthcare professionals may need to differentiate from contusions include:
- Fractures: Fractures can sometimes mimic the symptoms of contusions, especially when they are hairline fractures or small cracks in bones. X-rays are often used to distinguish between fractures and contusions.
- Strains and Sprains: Muscular strains or ligamentous sprains can cause pain, swelling, and limited range of motion, similar to contusions. Medical history and imaging may help differentiate these injuries.
- Hematoma: Hematomas are collections of blood outside blood vessels and can resemble severe contusions. Imaging studies and medical evaluation are necessary to distinguish between the two.
The R.I.C.E. protocol is a widely accepted and effective approach for treating contusions, especially in the early stages. It includes:
- Rest: Resting the injured area helps prevent further damage and promotes healing. Avoiding activities that worsen the pain or strain the affected muscles or joints is essential.
- Ice: Applying ice to the contusion reduces swelling and minimizes pain. Ice constricts blood vessels, limiting the amount of blood flow to the injured area. Cold packs or ice wrapped in a cloth should be applied for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day.
- Compression: Wrapping the injured area with an elastic bandage helps control swelling and provides support. Care should be taken not to wrap it too tightly, as this can impede circulation.
- Elevation: Elevating the injured area, if possible, helps reduce swelling by allowing fluids to drain away from the injury site. For example, elevating a leg with a contusion may involve propping it up on pillows.
Pain management is crucial for improving the comfort and well-being of individuals with contusions. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may be recommended to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. In more severe cases, healthcare providers may prescribe stronger pain medications.
Physical therapy plays a vital role in the rehabilitation of contusions, especially when they affect muscles, joints, or ligaments. A physical therapist designs a customised treatment plan that includes exercises to improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion. Physical therapy also helps prevent complications, such as muscle atrophy and facilitates a faster return to normal activities or sports.
Surgery (in severe cases)
Surgical intervention for contusions is relatively rare but may be necessary in severe cases.
Hematomas are collections of blood that can accumulate in the tissues near the contusion site. They may develop if bleeding continues after the initial injury or if blood pools within the injured area. Hematomas can cause increased pressure and pain, potentially leading to further tissue damage. In some cases, healthcare professionals may need to drain a hematoma to alleviate symptoms and prevent complications.
Contusions can disrupt the skin's protective barrier, making it easier for bacteria to enter the body. If the contusion site becomes contaminated with bacteria, it can lead to infection. Signs of infection may include increased pain, redness, warmth, swelling, and the presence of pus.
In some instances, contusions can injure or compress nerves near the injured area. This can result in symptoms such as numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected limb or body part. Nerve damage may require specialised evaluation and treatment by a neurologist or nerve specialist. Rehabilitation and physical therapy may also be necessary to regain normal nerve function.
Bone Fractures (if applicable)
Contusions occurring near bones may sometimes be associated with underlying fractures. This is especially true when the contusion is the result of a significant impact or trauma. It is essential to distinguish between a simple contusion and a fracture, as the treatment approaches differ significantly. X-rays or other imaging studies are typically used to confirm or rule out fractures when contusions occur near bones.
A contusion, commonly known as a bruise, results from blunt force trauma to the body, causing damage to the underlying soft tissues and visible skin discolouration. While typically not life-threatening, contusions can be painful and may lead to complications such as hematoma formation, infection, nerve damage, or, in some cases, associated bone fractures. Early diagnosis, often through physical examination and medical imaging, enables appropriate treatment strategies, including the R.I.C.E. protocol, pain management, physical therapy, or surgery when necessary. Understanding contusions is essential for effective management, injury prevention, and ensuring a swift and comfortable recovery, thereby promoting overall well-being and safety.
- Kostadinova-Petrova I, Mitevska E, Janeska B. Histological characteristics of bruises with different age. Open Access Maced J Med Sci [Internet]. 2017 Oct 16 [cited 2023 Sep 24];5(7):813–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5771278/
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- Buttaravoli P. Contusion. In: Minor Emergencies [Internet]. Elsevier; 2007 [cited 2023 Sep 24]. p. 557–60. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/contusion