Bursitis RICE treatment

The bursitis RICE (acronym for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) method is the widely used immediate first aid treatment of acute injuries and aches, which can:

  • relieve pain
  • limit swelling
  • protect the injured soft tissue
  • help you heal faster
  • prevent complications

Use the bursitis RICE formula immediately after hurting yourself or when your bursitis flares up so you can get back to your normal routine as quickly as possible.

'R' = Rest

Don't try to 'work through' the pain hoping that it go away eventually. Injuries don’t spontaneously disappear.

Rest is a vital part of healing your bursitis and tendonitis, because it:

1. Protects the damaged tissues from further injury.

The first 24-48 hours after the injury / flare up are considered a critical healing period.

2. Helps your body to accumulate the energy it needs to heal itself.

Sometimes using a splint (wrist, elbow, arm), sling, or crutches (foot, ankle, knee, leg) is necessary to avoid bearing weight on the affected part of the body and allow it to rest adequately.

For some types of bursitis, the resting may be only for a day, but for others, it may be a couple of weeks.

I don't want to be bed-ridden

No, the 'R' in bursitis RICE method does not mean that you should be completely bed ridden. In fact, complete rest for more than 48 hour may cause the muscles to become stiff and weak, which could lead to further damage and longer rehab time. Instead, avoid activities that could aggravate your condition and symptoms.

So as soon as the initial pain and swelling subside, you should begin to gently and gradually exercise the injured area to keep your tissues mobile, the blood flowing and to aid the healing process.

Try to work the entire range of motion of the affected joint area. Use pain as a guide to where your limitations are at that point in time.

Finally, after the bursitis has healed, strengthening exercises with easy weights can begin.

It's helpful to work with your physical therapist so you can progress quickly, without hurting yourself again.

'I' = Ice

The importance of icing in the bursitis RICE treatment can't be emphasized enough. At the first sign of inflammation or swelling, use ice. Cold reduces blood flow to the affected region and so:

  • slows down the inflammation process
  • slows down swelling
  • provides short-term anaesthetic effect - all-natural pain relief
  • relaxes muscle spasms
  • speeds up your recovery

Ice bag

When icing an injury, use a home-made / commercial ice pack (crushed ice in a zip lock bag, bag of frozen peas or corn, cold compress, chemical cold pack, gel cold pack,....) wrapped in a thin towel (sometimes not necessary with the commercial cold pack solutions) to provide cold to the injured area.

Never place ice directly on your skin as this may lead to tissue and skin damage (no frost bites, please).


If you add some rubbing alcohol into your home-made ice pack, it will come out nicely slushy rather than hard, which will make it more comfortable to use.

How to ice

Apply the ice to the affected area for approximately 10-20 minutes every 1-4 hours.

If the swelling is more severe, you could also do 3 hour cycles of 5-15 minute icing and 5-15 minute of warm-ups (ensure you allow a period long enough for the skin to re-warm properly), one after another.

If the iced area becomes numb, you should stop icing it. Never ice an area of the body for longer than 30 minutes or you actually risk damage to your tissues.

Can you use heat instead?

Why heat?

  • heat relaxes your muscles
  • heat improves your circulation
  • heat promotes healing
  • it feels so comforting to put a heating pad on the sore area

Use heat if:

  • your condition is more than 48 hours old and chronic
  • your muscles are tense
  • you have pain that’s a result of trigger point contractions

Do not use heat if:

  • your condition is still in the acute phase
  • definitely not in the first 24 hours after an injury / bursitis flare up
  • your muscles are in spasm

In these cases, heat can actually aggravate your bursitis and tendonitis, prolonging your pain.

'C' = Compression

Compression during the bursitis RICE treatment decreases swelling by limiting the accumulation of fluid (blood and plasma) from adjacent tissues to seep into the affected area.

The less fluid accumulates there, the faster the healing will be and the less pain you will feel.

Wrap the affected area using a bandage (elastic is the best but any piece of cloth will work just fine). Start wrapping below the swollen area and continue up through and above the injured joint. You could wrap the bandage over an ice pack.

Be careful not to wrap the bandage or cloth so tightly that the blood circulation is cut off. If you feel numbness, tingling, throbbing, cramping, and your fingers become blue and cold, your wrap is too tight. Re-wrap it.

'E'= Elevation

By elevating the limb affected by bursitis, less blood is pooling into the area and excess accumulated fluid can exit, which can help control:

  • swelling
  • inflammation
  • throbbing pain

Elevation is the most effective when the affected area is raised to or, even better, above the level of the heart.

For example, try lying on your bed with your leg / arm propped on at least two pillows to elevate the extremity sufficiently.

When to see a doctor

Generally speaking, make an appointment to see your physician or go to the emergency room if you experience:

  • stabbing or radiating pain
  • numbness o tingling
  • significant swelling
  • severe weakness
  • inability to move the injured body part
  • pain or swelling do not decrease after 48 hours or bursitis does not go away within about 10 days

However, this will very much depend on the severity of your symptoms. You are responsible for your health so it the decision is only yours.

Bursitis RICE treatment is a very natural, effective and cheap treatment option for this condition.

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