Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, if you play sports, you’ve probably faced an injury at some point. Common sports injuries include sprains, strains, swollen muscles, shin splints, rotator cuff injuries, knee injuries, fractures, and dislocations.
Some sports problems are acute injuries, the result of a sudden event that causes very noticeable symptoms. Others are chronic, overuse conditions that may have more subtle signs, either at first or consistently over time.
Common Sports Injuries
The most common athletic head injury is a concussion—an injury to the brain caused by a blow to the head, a collision, or violent shaking. A concussion is considered a traumatic brain injury and impacts cognitive functioning.
Repeated concussions can cause long-term problems with memory and executive function. If you suspect you or your loved one has a concussion, seek medical attention.
The most common shoulder problem is either inflammation or tearing of the rotator cuff. However, other conditions, such as a frozen shoulder or labral tear, can mimic symptoms of an injured rotator cuff and need to be considered as possible diagnoses.
Tendon problems around the elbow, including lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) and medial epicondylitis (golfer’s elbow), are the most common sports-related problems of the elbow joint.
Wrist fractures are among the most common broken bones in athletes. Landing from a fall onto an outstretched arm, for example, can lead to a wrist fracture that requires treatment.
Jammed fingers can describe many types of sports-related finger injuries. Dislocation of finger joints and finger swelling are common, especially in ball sports like basketball and soccer.
Low-back muscle strains are by far the most common spinal injuries in athletes (or non-athletes). The pain is often deep and severe, leading those affected to worry that a more serious structural problem may have occurred. While less typical spine problems should be considered, lumbar strains are by far the most common of them.
Hip and Groin
Groin strains or pulls have always been a common hip pain diagnosis. Many hip problems once attributed to a muscle strain, such as femoroacetabular impingement, or FAI, and labral tears, are becoming better understood, but groin strain injuries are still the most common.
A muscle strain, pull, or tear can occur in the hamstring, quadriceps, and adductor muscles in the thigh from a variety of different sports. Hamstrings and quadriceps are particularly at risk during high-speed activities like track and field, football, basketball, and soccer. The injury occurs when the muscle is stretched beyond its limit, tearing the muscle fibers.
Anterior knee pain, also called patellofemoral pain syndrome, is a cartilage irritation on the underside of the kneecap that causes pain and grinding around it. Therapeutic exercises are almost always used as treatment.
Ankle sprains are by far the most common injury of the ankle joint. Once an ankle sprain has occurred, repeat injuries can be common. Proper rehab after these injuries can help prevent reinjuring the ankle joint.
Plantar fasciitis involves irritation of the thick, tough tissue that creates the arch of the foot. This plantar fascia tissue can become contracted and painful, leading to difficulty stepping on the heel of the foot.
Pain is the primary symptom of a sports injury. It is the body’s signal that something is wrong and can differ based on the type of injury.
The immediate onset of pain from an acute injury that does not subside should be seen by a sports physician. An example of this is rolling your ankle and not being able to put weight on it or colliding with a person or object and not being able to move your arm.
Other times, pain onset is delayed. This is particularly common in overuse injuries. A joint may feel a little tender immediately after a sport, but the pain continues to intensify over the course of hours. Tenderness when pressure is applied to the area can be an important indicator that a serious injury has occurred.
The location of the discomfort, the depth of pain, and a description of the type of pain you are experiencing can help your healthcare provider determine the possible cause.
Swelling is a sign of inflammation, which is your body’s effort to respond to injury and initiate the healing response of the immune system. While swelling is not necessarily a bad thing, it can cause discomfort.
In the very early stages after injury, you may not notice swelling or any restriction in your ability to move. Swelling often occurs gradually as healing blood and fluid are sent to protect and heal damaged tissue or bone.
What you experience can tip your healthcare provider off as to the type of injury you have. There are a few types of swelling.
- Effusion: Swelling within a joint
- Edema: Swelling in the soft tissues
- Hematoma: Swelling due to bleeding in the soft tissue
While pain can be difficult to quantify, mobility can often be measured by checking your range of motion. This is especially true in injuries to the limb, because you can compare the injured joint to its opposite healthy one.
A limited range of motion can be a clear indication of the severity of an injury. An initial period of rest is typically recommended for lack of mobility in acute injuries, followed by gentle movements that build up to more exercise. See a sports doctor or physical therapist to assess and treat mobility problems prior to resuming sports activity.
An unstable joint feels loose or like it wants to buckle or give out. This is often a sign of a ligament injury (like an ACL tear), as the injured joint is not adequately supported after it has been damaged.
An injury that limits the strength of an injured area may signify structural damage to a muscle or tendon that prevents normal function. The inability to lift your arm or walk because of weakness should be evaluated by a medical professional, as there are other possible and concerning causes.
Numbness and Tingling
Numbness or tingling is a sign of nerve irritation or injury. Sometimes nerves are directly damaged; at other times, a nerve can be irritated by surrounding swelling or inflammation. Mild tingling is usually not a major problem, whereas the inability to feel an injured body part is more of a concern.
Redness at the injury site can be due to inflammation, or to an abrasion, allergy, or infection. If you have unexplained skin redness, particularly if the area is also hot to the touch, you should be evaluated by a medical professional.
Confusion or Headache
Even a mild head trauma can lead to a concussion, which can result in cognitive symptoms, such as confusion, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems, as well as headache, dizziness, nausea, and irritability.
A concussion can have serious consequences and should not be ignored. If a blow to the head causes any immediate symptoms or loss of consciousness, seek medical attention, even if the symptoms pass.
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Treating Sports Injuries for Optimal Recovery
1. ACL Tear
An ACL tear is most typically a non-contact injury that occurs in sports involving sudden stops, jumps or changes in direction. Many people hear or feel a “pop” in the knee, followed by swelling and an unstable feeling, where it becomes difficult to bear weight on the injured knee.
Because of their anatomy and biomechanics, women are more likely to have an ACL tear then men who participate in the same sports.
Additionally, if you’ve previously had an ACL injury, you’re more likely to re-tear it.
Can you still walk with a torn ACL?
Walking the first few days after your injury may be painful or difficult. You might have to use crutches to help you walk. After you’ve recovered your sense of balance, it shouldn’t cause any further damage to walking.
However, you should be cautious to maintain an even and steady pace, and avoid any twisting movements similar to those that caused the injury.
Especially if it’s a minor tear, the doctor will likely not only recommend you keep moving but that you try mobility and strengthening exercises as part of a rehab program with a physical therapist.
There are an estimated 200,000 cases of ACL injury every year. Of these cases, about half of them require ACL surgery. The good news is that prognosis for a partially torn ACL is often favorable, with the recovery period usually lasting about 3 months.
A complete ACL rupture has a much less favorable outcome without surgery. To repair a torn ACL, surgeons typically use a substitute graft made of tendon from another part of the body, like the patellar, hamstring or quadriceps, or from a cadaver.
2. Ankle Sprain
Talk about common – some 25,000 people sprain their ankle every day! While playing sports can be the culprit, many activities, such as stepping on an uneven surface or even wearing inappropriate footwear, can cause this kind of injury.
Ankle sprains happen to people of all ages, shapes and sizes.
For any type of acute musculoskeletal injury, doctors recommend a treatment approach using the mnemonic “RICE.” This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation to relieve pain and swelling, as well as promote proper healing and flexibility.
RICE works well with Grade 1 (mild) or Grade 2 (moderate) ankle sprains, but is less effective with Grade 3 (severe) ankle sprains.
New research is suggesting however, that this method is a bit outdated, and a new P.O.L.I.C.E. method should be used instead that prioritizes movement and less rest to help heal sprains move quickly. POLICE is an acronym that stands for protection, optimal loading, ice compression, and elevation.
Some home remedies to try, besides RICE, if you have a Grade 1 or Grade 2 ankle sprain include:
- Using elastic bandages to wrap your ankle (not too tightly as to cut off circulation)
- Wearing a brace to support your ankle
- Using crutches, if needed, to avoid loading the ankle
- Taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID (like ibuprofen), or acetaminophen
For Grade 3 injuries, represented by intense pain and difficulty walking because of torn ligaments, you should consult your doctor. Surgery may be your best recourse.
Several factors can contribute to getting a concussion. The number one cause of concussions: playing contact sports, particularly football. But this isn’t the only factor. Your position or style of play (i.e., how aggressive you are) can also increase your chances of sustaining a concussion.
Statistics show that people younger than 24 or over 75 are at the greatest risk for a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) like a concussion. Additionally, female athletes report more concussions than males in the same sports.
Is there a quick concussion test I can take?
If you’re hit in the head while playing a sport but you feel fine, you might want to know whether it’s safe to get back into the game.
While a new blood test has recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to determine whether there’s bleeding in the brain, it takes 3 to 4 hours to give results and can’t actually show whether a concussion has taken place.
To diagnose a concussion, you should visit a medical practitioner for a neurological exam and the practitioner can determine the best plan of action.
The most appropriate “medicine” a doctor can order for a concussion is rest. Avoid physical exertion or activities that require a lot of thought or mental concentration. Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor may suggest you take shorter school days or workdays, or take breaks throughout the day.
If you’re experiencing pain, an acetaminophen pain reliever may help. Because ibuprofen and aspirin increase the risk of bleeding, stay clear of these medications.
Eventually, once all signs and symptoms have resolved, you can discuss resuming sports with your doctor. It should be noted that returning to play too soon can increase the risk of a second concussion and a potentially fatal brain injury.
Before returning to normal activity, it is imperative that a neurologist, or another physician qualified in concussion management, perform follow up neurologic evaluation to confirm complete resolution and to minimize long term complications.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Sports injuries are common, and seeing a healthcare provider for every ache and pain is not necessary or practical for most athletes. If you have an injury that is not improving with simple treatment steps, however, or if it is worsening despite your efforts, see a trained professional.
Some signs that you should be seen by a medical professional include:
- Difficulty using the injured area (walking, lifting your arm, etc.)
- Inability to place weight on an extremity
- Limited mobility of a joint
- Deformity of the injured area
- Bleeding or skin injury
- Signs of infection (fevers, chills, sweats)
- Headache, dizziness, confusion, or loss of consciousness following a head injury