Man, does that hurt! You took that hill too quickly on your bike, lost your balance on your blades, or someone on the other soccer team missed the ball completely and kicked you right in the shin. The pain is bad enough, but the bruise left behind is pretty ugly. It’s nothing new; you’ve had a bruise or two before. But what exactly is a bruise?
What Is a Bruise?
A bruise, also called a contusion (pronounced: kun-TOO-zhen) or an ecchymosis (pronounced: eh-ky-MOE-sis), happens when a part of the body is struck and the muscle fibers and connective tissue underneath are crushed but the skin doesn’t break. When this occurs, blood from the ruptured capillaries (small blood vessels) near the skin’s surface escapes by leaking out under the skin. With no place to go, the blood gets trapped, forming a red or purplish mark that’s tender when you touch it — a bruise.
Bruises can happen for many reasons, but most are the result of bumping and banging into things — or having things bump and bang into you. Fortunately, as anyone who’s ever sported a shiner knows, the mark isn’t permanent.
How Long Do Bruises Last?
You know how a bruise changes color over time? That’s your body fixing the bruise by breaking down and reabsorbing the blood, which causes the bruise to go through many colors of the rainbow before it eventually disappears. You can pretty much guess the age of a bruise just by looking at its color:
- When you first get a bruise, it’s kind of reddish as the blood appears under the skin.
- Within 1 or 2 days, the hemoglobin (an iron-containing substance that carries oxygen) in the blood changes and your bruise turns bluish-purple or even blackish.
- After 5 to 10 days, the bruise turns greenish or yellowish.
- Then, after 10 or 14 days, it turns yellowish-brown or light brown.
Finally, after about 2 weeks, your bruise fades away.
Who Gets Bruises?
Anyone can get a bruise. Some people bruise easily, whereas others don’t. Why? Bruising depends on several things, such as:
- how tough the skin tissue is
- whether someone has certain diseases or conditions
- whether a person’s taking certain medications
Also, blood vessels tend to become fragile as people get older, which is why elderly people tend to bruise more easily.
How Can I Help Myself Feel Better?
It’s hard to prevent bruises, but you can help speed the healing process. When you get a bruise, you can use stuff you find right in your freezer to help the bruise go away faster. Applying cold when you first get a bruise helps reduce its size by slowing down the blood that’s flowing to the area, which decreases the amount of blood that ends up leaking into the tissues. It also keeps the inflammation and swelling down. All you have to do is apply cold to the bruise for 15 to 20 minutes at a time for a day or two after the bruise appears.
You don’t need to buy a special cold pack, although they’re great to keep on hand in the freezer. Just get some ice, put it in a plastic bag, and wrap the bag in a cloth or a towel and place it on the bruise (it isn’t a good idea to apply the ice directly to the skin).
Another trick is to use a bag of frozen vegetables. It doesn’t matter what kind — carrots, peas, lima beans, whatever — as long as they’re frozen. A bag of frozen vegetables is easy to apply to the bruise because it can form to the shape of the injured area. Also, like a cold pack, it can be used and refrozen again and again (just pick your least-favorite vegetables and label the bag — you don’t want to keep thawing and freezing veggies that you plan to eat!).
To reduce swelling and bruising, elevate the bruised area above the level of your heart. In other words, if the bruise is on your shin, lie down on a couch or bed and prop up your leg. This will help prevent blood from pooling in the area because more of the blood will flow back toward your heart. If you keep standing, more blood will flow to your bruised shin and the bruise will be larger.
Take acetaminophen for pain, if needed.
When to See a Doctor
Minor bruises are easily treated, but it’s probably best to talk to a doctor if:
- A bruise isn’t improving after 2 weeks.
- You bruise often and bruises seem to develop for no known reasons.
- Your bruise is swelling and very painful.
- You can’t move a joint or you think you may have a broken bone.
- The bruise is near your eye and you have difficulty moving your eyes or seeing.
Can Bruises Be Prevented?
Bruises are kind of hard to avoid completely, but if you’re playing sports, riding your bike, inline skating, or doing anything where you might bump, bang, crash, or smash into something — or something might bump, bang, crash, or smash into you — it’s smart to wear protective gear like pads, shin guards, and helmets. Taking just a few extra seconds to put on that gear might save you from a couple of weeks of aches and pains (not to mention save your life if the accident’s really serious)!
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2013