If you play sports, you already know the benefits of getting exercise while doing something you love. But even though you are doing something good for your body, you could be putting it at risk, too. Sports injuries sideline millions of people each year, and experts predict that those numbers will continue to grow as the beginner age for participating in sports continues to drop.
Young athletes are starting competitive sports earlier than ever. While finding their passion so early in life can lead to great things, it can also wear their bodies down earlier, ending a promising athletic career. Child athletes who play the same sport year-round and expose their bodies to the same repetitive motions are especially vulnerable. These injuries can be particularly devastating because they can affect growth plates — the region in long bones where growth occurs — and impact the nonsporting aspects of life, too.
While there is no way to prevent injuries from sports-related accidents, some injuries caused by straining and overuse can be prevented by doing appropriate pre- and post-sport stretching and listening to your body when it needs to rest.
Also known as patellar tendinitis, jumper’s knee occurs when there is an injury (or inflammation) to the tissue that connects the kneecap and thigh muscles to the shin bone. Overuse or repetitive motion triggers this injury. Anyone can get jumper’s knee but, as the name suggests, you’re especially at risk if your sport of choice involves a lot of jumping, as in basketball and volleyball. You also are more likely to experience jumper’s knee the more you weigh or if you play sports on a hard surface. Symptoms include knee pain, especially just below the kneecap. You also may experience weakness or stiffness in the knee while jumping or kneeling, or while climbing stairs.
Little League elbow
Often associated with over-use, Little League elbow (also Little Leaguer’s elbow) is a condition that affects the growth plate of the elbow in adolescents. It is a common injury not only for baseball pitchers, but also for catchers, infielders, and outfielders. The repetitive motion of throwing puts too much stress on the elbow and leads to chronic inflammation of the growth plate. Adults can experience a similar condition, called ulnar collateral ligament injury. Symptoms are pain of the inside elbow, especially when throwing. The pain gets worse with each consecutive throw.
Another repetitive-motion injury, runner’s knee is common to runners or to anyone who does a lot of walking, biking, or general knee bending. It can also be caused by knee trauma or a hard bump to the knee. Symptoms include pain behind your kneecap, especially when you bend your knee. You also may be able to feel a grinding sensation when your knee bends. Swelling is also associated with this condition.
A sprain is one of the most common sports injuries. A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament near a joint, such as a knee, ankle, or wrist. Sprains are most often caused by falling or by a twisting motion. They can be mild or severe, depending on whether the ligament is stretched or torn. Symptoms are pain and swelling (sometimes severe), as well as not being able to apply weight to the joint or use it without pain. Bruising is also typical.
You should not confuse a strain with a sprain. They are different. A strain refers to a muscular injury, while a sprain is an injury to a ligament. A strain occurs when you stretch or tear muscle tissue by overextending it. Mild strains can be caused by repetitive motion. Acute strains typically happen in a single movement. In sports, acute strains are most likely to occur when you are running, jumping, or lifting, or when you quickly change direction. You’re also more likely to strain a muscle in cold weather. Symptoms are sudden pain followed by immediate limited range of motion to the affected area. In severe cases, you may also see bruising and swelling.
Tennis elbow is a painful condition caused by overusing your elbow. Repetitive motions, like those a tennis player or golfer would use, are to blame. This condition isn’t limited to athletes, though. You can suffer from tennis elbow anytime you perform a repetitive task that engages your elbow in the same way. Instead of affecting the inside elbow (like Little League elbow), tennis elbow makes for a painful outside elbow. The pain is caused by inflammation in the tendons. Other symptoms may include weakness, especially as it relates to gripping objects.
Treatment plan for sports injuries
Minor sports injuries can be managed at home and should get better in a few days. The best home care is to use the R.I.C.E. treatment plan: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
- Immediately stop using the injured area. Sometimes 24 to 48 hours of rest will make a big difference in overall recovery. It could be that the area you injured will need to rest for a longer period of time. For injuries affecting legs, knees, or ankles, this means using crutches so that you are not putting weight on the injured body part.
- Putting ice on your injury will help with pain and swelling. You should apply ice to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes every four hours. Crushed ice is best for ice packs because you can manipulate it easier to cover the injury.
- Keeping pressure on the injury will also help with swelling and will provide additional support. An elastic medical-grade bandage works best. Wrap the bandage tight, but not so tight that it cuts off circulation to the area.
- Propping up the affected area offers a few benefits. First, it will ensure you are resting your injury properly. Second, it will help reduce swelling. The correct way to elevate is to make sure that the injured area is propped up higher than your heart.
When to see a doctor
If your injury causes extreme swelling, bruising, or an obvious deformity, head straight to your doctor. Bruising may get worse in the days following your injury. However, you should see a doctor if pain is severe or if swelling or pain doesn’t go away after a few days.
How to prevent or avoid
One of the best ways to prevent injury is to be dedicated to a stretching routine before and after you play sports or exercise. You should also never play a sport without the proper protective gear — and it should be in good condition. Always drink plenty of water to stay hydrated before, during, and after an athletic event. Have a few cups of water before you play or exercise, and stop for a drink every 20 minutes or so during your activity. When you’ve finished playing or exercising, drink another cup or two of water, depending on how much you sweated during the activity.
Research is beginning to uncover the additional hazards of playing the same sport year-round. This is especially true for younger athletes. Orthopedic surgeons recommend keeping sports to a dedicated season. For example, instead of playing year-round soccer, play soccer in the spring, baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter. This kind of variety can eliminate the risk of putting stress on the same joints week after week.
Questions for Your Doctor
- Will my injured area heal to be just as strong as it was before the injury?
- How do I know when to apply ice or heat to an injury?
- Will I be more likely to injure the same area again, now that it’s been injured?
- How will I know if I have wrapped the bandage too tight?
- What is the best way to stay hydrated?
- How long until I can resume normal activities?
- How long until I can play my sport or exercise again?
- Will I be more likely to have arthritis in joints that I’ve injured?
- Will a support brace help me prevent additional injury to a previously injured area?
- Should I see a sports-medicine specialist?
- Is professional rehab necessary for my injury? If so, what are the benefits?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.