We’ve all had painful, unattractive bruises at some stage — those black and blue marks that show up after a particularly hard bump or fall. But why do they make our skin turn purple? And is there any way to speed up the healing process?
Bruising is a discoloration of the skin caused by blood leaking from tiny blood vessels under the skin's surface, Dr. Marc Taub, an emergency physician at the Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows. Contusions — as health care providers call them — are most commonly caused by a direct injury to that part of your body, like bumping into something.
But why that distinctive purplish color?
“When the soft tissue in your body is injured, the small blood vessels can break, which causes red blood cells to leak into the soft tissue,” Dr. Mimi Trinh, a family physician at MemorialCare Medical Group in San Juan Capistrano, California tells SheKnows. “When this happens beneath the skin, the red blood cells can have a blue, purple, red or black hue.”
Typically, bruises take one to two weeks to heal. During this time, it is completely normal for the bruise to change colors — including a lovely shade of yellow — along with some spreading or swelling.
Aging, blood-thinning medications and certain diseases all can make certain people more likely to bruise than others.
If you see a bruise forming, Trinh suggests stopping the activity you’re doing to prevent further injury and avoiding overusing the affected muscles.
To promote healing, both doctors recommend that patients rest the area, elevate, apply intermittent ice (but not directly on your skin, Trinh warns) and use a light compression bandage, especially if there is swelling. Trinh suggests wrapping ice cubes in a washcloth and applying it to the injury for 10 to 15 minutes every hour until the swelling comes down.
Additionally, many drugstores now offer nonprescription remedies like Arnica to possibly aid in bruise healing, Taub says. Arnica is a homeopathic, herbal treatment that is generally safe when used on the skin as a gel, cream or ointment, but should not be used on broken skin. And like home remedies for bruises, he adds, there is limited scientific evidence of its effectiveness.
So what can you do to make a bruise heal faster? Unfortunately, not much.
While there’s no quick fix, Trinh says that 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight can help break down bilirubin, which is the substance that causes the yellow color in bruises, possibly shortening the healing time. She also suggests applying heat or gently massaging the bruise a few days after it forms to improve circulation to the area, which may speed up the process as well.
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