In recent years, increasing numbers of people of all ages have been following the advice of their health care advisors and becoming more active and fit. But, for some, particularly those who overdo it, don’t properly exercise, or do not warm up prior to exercising; benefits can come at the price of injuries. Of course, injuries can happen due to accidents as well. Either way, getting through the process of healing and being able to return to regular physical activity as quickly as possible is the key.
Fortunately, most sports injuries can be treated effectively, and most people who suffer injuries can return to a satisfying level of physical activity after an injury. Even better, many sports injuries can be prevented if the proper precautions are taken.
The term “sports injury,” in the broadest sense, refers to the kinds of injuries that most commonly occur during sports or exercise. Though some sports injuries result from accidents, most are due to poor training practices, improper equipment, lack of conditioning, or insufficient warm-up and stretching.
Although virtually any part of your body can be injured while playing sports or during exercise, the term is typically reserved for injuries that involve the musculoskeletal system, which include the muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bones. Following are some of the most common sports injuries:
- Muscle sprains and strains.
- Tears of the ligaments, which hold joints together.
- Tears of the tendons, which support joints and allow them to move.
- Dislocated joints.
- Fractured bones.
Sprains and Strains
A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament, the band of connective tissues that joins the end of one bone with another. Sprains are caused by trauma such as a fall or blow to the body that knocks a joint out of position and, in the worst case, ruptures the supporting ligaments. Areas of the body most vulnerable to sprains are ankles, knees, and wrists. Signs of a sprain include varying degrees of tenderness or pain, bruising, inflammation, swelling, inability to move a limb or joint, or joint looseness, laxity, or instability. Symptoms of a strain include pain, muscle spasm, and loss of strength.
Because of its complex structure and weight-bearing capacity, the knee is a commonly injured joint. Knee injuries can range from mild to severe. Some of the less severe knee injuries, yet still painful and functionally limiting, are runner’s knee (pain or tenderness close to, or under the knee cap at the front or side of the knee), iliotibial band syndrome (pain on the outer side of the knee), and tendinitis, also called tendinosis (marked by degeneration within a tendon, usually where it joins the bone). More severe injuries include bone bruises, or damage to the cartilage or ligaments. Knee injuries can result from a blow to, or twist of, the knee as a result of an improper landing after a jump, or from running too hard, too much, or without a proper warm-up.
Although the term “shin splints” has been widely used to describe any sort of leg pain associated with exercise, the term actually refers to pain along the tibia or shin bone, the large bone in the front of the lower leg. This pain can occur at the front outside part of the lower leg, including the foot and ankle (anterior shin splints), or at the inner edge of the bone where it meets the calf muscles (medial shin splints).
Shin splints are primarily seen in runners, particularly those just starting a running program. Risk factors for shin splints include overuse or incorrect use of the lower leg, improper stretching, warm-up, or exercise technique, overtraining, running or jumping on hard surfaces, and running in shoes that don’t have enough support. These injuries are often associated with flat feet.
Achilles Tendon Injuries
An Achilles tendon injury results from a stretch, tear, or irritation to the tendon connecting the calf muscle to the back of the heel. These injuries can be very sudden and extremely painful.
The most common cause of Achilles tendon tears is a problem called tendinitis, a degenerative condition caused by aging or overuse. When a tendon is weakened, trauma can cause it to more easily rupture. Achilles tendon injuries are common in middle-aged “weekend warriors” who may not exercise regularly or take time to stretch properly before an activity. Among professional athletes, most Achilles injuries seem to occur in quick-acceleration and jumping sports, such as football and basketball, and almost always result in an early end to the season for the injured athlete.
A fracture is a break in the bone that can occur from either a quick, one-time injury to the bone (acute fracture) or from repeated stress to the bone over time (stress fracture).
Acute fractures. Acute fractures can be simple (a clean break with little damage to the surrounding tissue), or compound (a break in which the bone pierces the skin with little damage to the surrounding tissue). Most acute fractures are emergencies.
Stress fractures. Stress fractures occur largely in the feet and legs and are common in sports that require repetitive impact, primarily running and jumping sports such as gymnastics and track and field. Running creates forces on the lower limbs of 2-3 times one’s body weight.
The most common symptom of a stress fracture is pain at the site that worsens with weight-bearing activity. Tenderness and swelling often accompany the pain.
When the two bones that come together to form a joint become separated, the joint is described as being dislocated. Contact sports, such as football, as well as high-impact sports and sports that can result in excessive stretching or falling cause the majority of dislocations. A dislocated joint is an emergency situation that requires medical treatment.
What Should I Do if I Suffer an Injury?
Whether an injury is acute or chronic, there is never a good reason to try to “work through” the pain of an injury. When you have pain from a particular movement or activity, STOP! Continuing the activity only causes further harm.
Some injuries require prompt medical attention, while others can be self-treated. You should call a health professional if:
- The injury causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness.
- You can’t tolerate any weight on the area.
- The pain or dull ache of an old injury is accompanied by increased swelling or joint abnormality or instability.
If you don’t have any of the above symptoms, it’s probably safe to treat the injury at home – at least at first. If pain or other symptoms worsen, it’s best to check with your healthcare provider. The RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) is the common recommendation by healthcare professionals in order to relieve pain and inflammation, and speed healing. RICE, described as follows, is typically used immediately after an injury and for at least the following 48 hours:
- Rest. Reduce regular exercise or activities of daily living as needed. If you cannot put weight on an ankle or knee, crutches may help. If you use a cane or one crutch for an injury, use it on the uninjured side to help you lean away and relieve weight on the injured side.
- Ice. Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times per day. A cold pack, ice bag, or plastic bag filled with crushed ice and wrapped in a towel can be used. To avoid cold injury and frostbite, do not apply the ice for more than 20 minutes. (Note: Do not use heat immediately after an injury. This tends to increase internal bleeding or swelling. Heat can be used later on to relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation.)
- Compression. Compression of the injured area may help reduce swelling. Compression can be achieved with elastic wraps, special boots, air casts, and splints. Ask your healthcare provider for advice on which to use.
- Elevation. If possible, keep the injured ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist elevated on a pillow, above the level of the heart, to help decrease swelling.
Follow Grandma’s Advice
We’ve all heard the expression, “Grandma said everything in moderation.” The same holds true for exercise. Regularly exercising is great for you so long as you do it safely. Being safe requires you to exercise properly, appropriately and timely. If you are feeling any pain then you probably aren’t doing it properly. If you can’t keep up or become extremely sore then that exercise may not be appropriate. Finally, if you are exercising so often that you begin to develop injuries then you are probably overdoing it! Find the right balance and exercise will be the best medicine you can take.