Recovery timeframes for common injury types

Most soft tissue injuries recover within six weeks. In some cases, however, injured workers with soft tissue injuries do not recover as expected. Where an injury has not healed within the expected recovery timeframe, the diagnosis and management plan should be reconsidered. Reassess for serious underlying pathology (red flags), undertake screening for psychosocial risk factors (yellow flags), and reconsider treatment type and intensity.

The following tables list the most common soft tissue injuries for which workers compensation is paid in South Australia and indicative healing times after the injury.

The tables have been compiled using information from multiple resources including:

  • WorkCoverSA. Annual Report 2007-2008. Adelaide WorkCoverSA October 2008.
  • Solomon L, Warwick DJ, Nayagam S, editors. Apley’s System of Orthopaedics and Fractures. 8th ed: Arnold Publishing London; 2001.
  • Russell RCG, Williams NS, Bulstrode CJK, editors. Bailey & Love’s Short Practice of Surgery. 23rd ed:, Arnold Publishing London; 2000.
  • Presley Reed, The Medical Disability Advisor. 2nd ed:, LRP Publications, Pennsylvania; 1994.

 

Hand/wrist

While healing occurs for injuries to one upper limb, activities using the other limb are usually able to be undertaken.

Wrist sprain/strain
Expected healing time: Up to 6 weeks
Notes: Most wrist sprains recover in 2-4 weeks. Splinting will often assist in the restoration of function.

Laceration involving skin and subcutaneous tissues
Expected healing time: Up to 2 weeks
Notes: Activity can continue while healing occurs, particularly if the affected area can be kept dry.

Laceration involving tendons
Expected healing time: Up to 6 weeks for extensor tendons, Up to 12 weeks for flexor tendons
Notes: Particularly after flexor tendon repair, specific therapy to restore function will generally assist recovery.

Carpal tunnel syndrome – medically managed
Expected healing time: Not applicable
Notes: A reduction in symptoms may occur. Exposure to vibration and repetitive forceful gripping should be limited.

Carpal tunnel syndrome – surgically decompressed
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: Decompression reduces the pressure on the nerve and thus should enable rapid reduction in symptoms.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Tendonitis/Tenosynovitis
Expected healing time: 2-4 weeks or longer
Notes: If the precipitating activity is ceased, resolution generally occurs in 2-4 weeks. If not, symptoms may continue indefinitely.

Fracture
Expected healing time: 4-12 weeks
Notes: The rate of healing for a fracture depends on the type and location of the fracture and whether surgical intervention is required.

Ganglion treated conservatively
Expected healing time: 0-2 weeks
Notes: Most ganglions are symptom free. If there are symptoms, a short period of rest may assist symptom resolution.

Ganglion treated surgically
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: Recovery should occur without further treatment.

Elbow

While healing occurs for injuries to one upper limb, activities using the other limb are usually able to be undertaken.

Medial or lateral epicondylitis
Expected healing time: 6-12 weeks if causative activity is stopped
Notes: This condition may become chronic. Removal of the causative activity in the acute phase generally results in control or resolution of symptoms.
Avoiding repetitive twisting and gripping activities in the position of elbow extension and pronation is also of great assistance in managing the symptoms in the acute phase. Use the arm with the palm up and the elbow held by the side.

Sprain/strain
Expected healing time: 6 weeks
Notes: Most strain/sprain injuries should heal in 2-4 weeks.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Fracture
Expected healing time: 4-12 weeks
Notes: The rate of healing for a fracture depends on the type and location of the fracture and whether surgical intervention is required.

Laceration involving skin and subcutaneous tissues
Expected healing time: Up to 2 weeks
Notes: Generally activity can continue while healing occurs, particularly if the affected area can be kept dry.

Shoulder

While healing occurs for injuries to one upper limb, activities using the other limb are usually able to be undertaken.

Sprain/strain
Expected healing time: 6 weeks
Notes: Most non-specific strain/sprain injuries should heal within 6 weeks.

Rotator cuff tendinopathy
Expected healing time: 2-12 weeks
Notes: Rotator cuff tendinopathy without impingement should resolve with removal of the causative activity and restricting shoulder movement to the pain free range in the acute (first 6 weeks) phase.

Impingement syndrome
Expected healing time: 2-12 weeks
Notes: Removal of any causative activity will assist healing. Conservative treatment may be unsuccessful.
There will generally be a pain-free range of shoulder movement and the ability to continue activity within that range of movement.

Dislocation
Expected healing time: 3-12 weeks
Notes: Healing depends on whether it is the acromioclavicular or glenohumeral joint which is dislocated, the amount of associated injury and if surgical intervention is required. In most instances healing should occur within 6 weeks.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Neck/cervical spine

Sprain/strain including whiplash
Expected healing time: 40% have recovered by 4 weeks, 60% have recovered by 6 weeks, 85% are recovered by 3 months
Notes: Symptoms are frequently recurrent. The chance of recovery is maximised by undertaking as much activity as can be tolerated and by not keeping the neck in a flexed position for periods of more than 10-20 minutes.

Cervical nerve root lesions – treated conservatively
Expected healing time: 6 weeks-2 years
Notes: Generally these lesions spontaneously improve with most recovery occurring in the first 12 months.

Cervical nerve – treated surgically
Expected healing time: 6 weeks-6 months
Notes: If cervical fusion has also occurred, then heavy physical activity will need to be avoided until the fusion is solidly healed.

Low back (lumbosacral spine)

Non-specific/benign low back pain
Expected healing time: 6 weeks
Notes: While pain may continue beyond 6 weeks from date of onset, there is strong evidence that implementing active management strategies is associated with better long term functional outcomes.

Radicular pain (sciatica) treated conservatively
Expected healing time: Up to 2 years
Notes: Most radicular pain (sciatica) responds well to conservative management (ie, surgery is not required). After 6 weeks from date of onset the risk of aggravation or a further disc protrusion has returned to pre-injury risk.
As for benign low back pain, adopting active management strategies is associated with a better long- term functional outcome.

Degenerative changes/facet joint pain
Expected healing time: 6 weeks
Notes: While pain may continue beyond 6 weeks from date of onset, there is strong evidence that implementing active management strategies is associated with better long term functional outcomes. It should be noted that there is a greater likelihood of longer term symptoms with this presentation.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Fracture
Expected healing time: 2-6 weeks
Notes: Fractures of the transverse processes are most common and activity is resumed as tolerated. Other fractures are more significant and may require a longer healing time (up to 3 and rarely even 6 months)

Hip

Provision of and certification for seated duties while healing occurs, will facilitate recovery in all injuries involving the lower limb and should occur in all instances unless such duties will disadvantage the injured worker's recovery.

Sprain/strain
Expected healing time: 2-6 weeks
Notes: Hip injuries occur uncommonly in workers compensation.
Recovery will be facilitated by provision of seating duties while healing occurs.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Knee

Provision of and certification for seated duties while healing occurs will facilitate recovery in all injuries involving the lower limb and should occur in all instances, unless such duties will disadvantage the injured worker's recovery.

Sprain/strain
Expected healing time: 2-6 weeks
Notes: Sprain/strain injuries generally heal in 2-6 weeks. Sometimes this is a provisional diagnosis and a different diagnosis is made when expected healing does not occur.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Meniscal (cartilage) injury treated surgically
Expected healing time: 2-4 weeks
Notes: Arthroscopic treatment of a damaged meniscus should be followed by rapid restoration of function arising from the damaged meniscus unless there are other concurrent pathologies within the knee joint.

Lacerations
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: Generally activity can continue while healing occurs, particularly if the affected area can be kept dry.

Ankle and foot

Provision of and certification for seated duties while healing occurs will facilitate recovery in all injuries involving the lower limb and should occur in all instances, unless such duties will disadvantage the injured worker's recovery.

Sprain/strain
Expected healing time: 2-6 weeks
Notes: Sprain/strain injuries generally heal in 2-6 weeks. Occasionally the ankle will be immobilised while healing occurs.

Bruises/contusions
Expected healing time: 2 weeks
Notes: If there is significant associated tissue injury, particularly with a crush injury, healing may be slower.

Fracture
Expected healing time: 2-12 weeks
Notes: Fractures in the ankle and foot can be slow to heal but there is generally a capability for seated activity while this occurs.

Plantar fasciitis
Expected healing time: 0-2 weeks
Notes: Plantar fasciitis is more commonly aggravated than primarily caused by work. Seated duties, modification of footwear or orthotics generally facilitate resolution of symptoms.

Other injuries

Hernia – unoperated
Expected healing time: Not applicable
Notes: On occasions, a hernia can cause symptoms, particularly pain. Until it is surgically repaired there should be a reduction in lifting and forceful strain eg, pushing, pulling.

Hernia – surgically repaired
Expected healing time: Up to 6 weeks
Notes: While the healing structures have not attained full strength for 6 weeks after surgery, increasing activity including activity at work will normally be possible from 1-2 weeks after surgery.

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