Understanding Sports Injuries and Preventing Them

The term sports injury, in the broadest sense, refers to the kinds of injuries that most commonly occur during sports or exercise. 

Sports injuries can occur due to overtraining, lack of conditioning, and improper form or technique. Failing to warm-up increases the risk of sports injuries. Bruises, strains, sprains, tears, and broken bones can result from sports injuries. Soft tissues like muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia, and bursae may be affected. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is another potential type of sports injury. Although virtually any part of your body can be injured during sports or exercise, the term is usually reserved for injuries that involve the musculoskeletal system, which includes the muscles, bones, and associated tissues like cartilage. Traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries are relatively rare during sports or exercise. 

One of the building blocks of a healthy lifestyle is exercise and physical activity, therefore sports injury is a major hindrance. Prevention of injuries in exercise and sports has been emphasized severally in various publications and fields. However, much of the pointers emphasized to help reduce the risk of sports injuries are not adhered to. Some athletes and individuals kick themselves hard after realizing that some injuries could have been avoided easily if only, they adhered to simple measures such as wearing protective clothing or seeking the right medical treatments for their injuries. This would have saved them from the traumatic experience and fear associated with a sports injury.

Some sports injuries result from accidents; others are due to: 

  • Poor training practices
  • Improper equipment
  • Lack of conditioning
  • Insufficient warmup and stretching

Types of Injuries in Sports

  • Muscle sprains and strains
  • Tears of the ligaments that hold joints together
  • Tears of the tendons that support joints and allow them to move
  • Dislocated joints
  • Fractured bones, including vertebrae

Pulled Muscle:

Illustration showing  the areas of the body where a pulled muscle can occur.

Muscle strain is another name for a pulled muscle. It occurs when a muscle is overstretched and tears. Symptoms of a pulled muscle may include pain, swelling, weakness, and difficulty or inability to use the muscle. Muscles in the quadriceps, the calves, hamstrings, groin, low back, and shoulder are the most common sites for pulled muscles. Minor muscle strains resolve with RICE — Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may help manage pain and swelling as well. More serious muscle strains require evaluation and treatment by a doctor.

Stress Fracture

A stress fracture is an overuse injury that occurs when muscles are no longer able to absorb the impact from physical activity, and a bone absorbs the pressure, resulting in a break. Stress fractures can occur when increasing activity, especially too quickly. Stress fractures cause pain with activity. Rest is prescribed to allow a stress fracture to heal. Sometimes a special shoe or a brace helps decrease stress on the bone, which facilitates healing. The majority of stress fractures occur in the lower legs and feet. Women are more prone to stress fractures than men.

Plantar Fasciitis

The plantar fascia is a ligament that connects the heel to the front of the foot, supporting the arch. Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of this ligament. It causes heel pain often felt the first thing in the morning after getting out of bed or after being active. Stress and strain on the feet increase the risk of plantar fasciitis. Obesity, tight calf muscles, repetitive use, high arches, and new athletic activities are all risk factors for this condition. Plantar fasciitis is treated with rest, ice, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and special stretching exercises. Cushioning insoles may provide relief. Wearing splints at night may help decrease pain. More severe cases of plantar fasciitis may be treated with cortisone injections, physical therapy, and surgery.

Shin Splints

Shin splints are throbbing, aching, or stabbing pain on the insides of the lower leg. Shin splints are a repetitive use injury that may occur in runners or those who are beginning to exercise. Pain occurs when muscles and tendons around the tibia (the larger of the two lower leg bones) become inflamed. Stretching, resting, and applying ice can help relieve shin splints. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce pain and swelling. Bandaging the area may help prevent swelling. Flat feet increase the risk of shin splints. Orthotics and proper athletic shoes may offer support and decrease the risk of shin splints.

Sprained Ankle

A sprained ankle occurs when the ligaments that support the joint become overstretched. Ankle sprains may occur when playing sports or doing everyday activities. Stepping wrong on an uneven surface or stepping in a way that twists or rolls the foot may lead to an ankle sprain. Sprains and the pain they cause may range from mild to severe. RICE — rest, ice, compression, and elevation — are used to treat ankle sprains. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can alleviate pain and swelling. Severe sprains may require a brace or cast for several weeks to facilitate healing.

Tennis Elbow

Tennis elbow is an overuse injury that may be associated with playing racket sports. Plumbers, painters and those in similar professions are also at risk. Tennis elbow involves inflammation of the tendons on the outside of the elbow caused by small tears. Tennis elbow causes pain and may be associated with a weak grip. Rest and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications can help alleviate tennis elbow symptoms. Wearing a special brace on the forearm may help decrease pressure on the sore area. Physical therapy may be helpful. Steroid injections can decrease inflammation. Surgery may be an option for tennis elbow when other treatments have failed.

Lower Back Pain

There are many causes of low back pain. Back pain may be due to overuse, such as playing one too many rounds of golf or lifting heavy weights. This kind of back strain usually resolves on its own without treatment. Rest and anti-inflammatory medications can provide relief. Using proper form when exercising and increasing the duration of workouts slowly can help protect the back. In some cases, it may be necessary to modify exercise technique or perform daily activities in a different way in order to reduce the risk of back injury. Other causes of back pain may be more serious and require medical or surgical intervention.

Achilles Tendonitis

Achilles tendonitis is inflammation that causes pain on the lower back of the leg just above the heel. The area may become painful, swollen, and stiff. The pain worsens after physical activity. The tendon may become thickened and, in some cases, bone spurs may develop in the area. Achilles tendonitis may be treated with rest, ice, stretching, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Strengthening exercises prescribed by a physical therapist may help. Special footwear and orthotics can help take the strain off the affected heel.

Sports Injury Prevention

Develop an exercise program

We hit the gym using all equipment available in the name of ‘exercising’ without a plan in mind. Athletes or individuals must seek expert advice from personnel such as physiotherapists in the prescription of exercises appropriate for them, their fitness level and sporting events. Whether you aim at exercising for a match or general fitness, your physiotherapist will help you plan and also prescribe injury, fitness or age-appropriate exercises targeted to you at that point in time. Your physiotherapist will help you develop a fitness plan that includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training, body composition, and flexibility.

Warm-ups and cool downs

Failure to perform a proper warm-up can put you at risk of injury as the muscles and joints are not prepared for exercise.  A warm-up is necessary to increase body temperature and circulation of blood to the muscles. A 15-20-minute warm-up should include a combination of stretching and cardiovascular (E.g. aerobic) exercises to prepare the body for exercise, increase performance levels and help to prevent injuries. A 15-20-minute cool down after your workout allows for a gradual recovery of pre-exercise heart rate and blood pressure. This also includes stretches, brisk walking and other light exercises which can be prescribed by your physiotherapist per your activities.

Strengthening Exercises

Everyone from well-trained athletes to weakened warriors can suffer a sports injury. When muscles are not used regularly, wasting in muscles can occur. This means the muscle fibres have become weakened. Weakness in the muscles, ligaments and tendons following vigorous exercise is often caused by inadequate fitness and engaging in an activity you’re not properly conditioned for.  The good news, however is that with regular exercise and training prescribed by your physiotherapist, the muscles will adapt and strengthen. These exercises when prescribed should be treated as your mandatory dose for the best results.

Stretching Exercises

Stretching exercises can improve the ability of muscles to contract and perform, reducing the risk for injury. Each stretch should start slowly until you reach a point of muscle tension. Stretching should not be painful. Aim to hold each stretch for up to 20 seconds. Always take your time during stretch training and go through the full range of movement with each repetition.

Use the proper technique

Using proper technique should be reinforced during the playing season. Play safe. Strict rules against headfirst sliding in baseball and softball, spearing in football, and checking in hockey should be enforced. 

Wear the right gear

Players should wear appropriate, protective and properly fitting equipment such as pads (neck, shoulder, elbow, chest, knee, shin), helmets, mouthpieces, face guards, protective cups, and eyewear. Young athletes should not assume that protective gear will prevent all injuries while performing more dangerous or risky activities.

Take time off

Plan to have at least 1 day off per week and at least one month off per year from training for a particular sport to allow the body to recover. Rest periods during practice and games also reduce injuries and prevent heat illness.

Do not play through pain

If you do sustain a sports injury, make sure you participate in adequate rehabilitation before resuming strenuous activity. Don’t assume your pain is not serious and go back to play without seeking appropriate advice from the sports medical team.

Stay hydrated

Drink water to prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While drinking enough water may seem like a simple action, it impacts virtually every aspect of sports performance. Staying hydrated increases energy, improves movement, recovery and agility, thermoregulation, and aids in mental clarity and activity all of which improve physical performance and reduce the risk of injuries.

Injury prevention measures should be employed before, after and during training sessions, gym workouts as well as competitive and social games. Physiotherapists can educate you on the precautions to take to avoid injury, traumatic experiences associated with injuries and termination of sporting careers early in life. Gyms, hotels with sporting fields, recreational centers, sports clubs and teams as well as individuals who love to exercise at home should seek expert advice from personnel such as physiotherapists to help prevent the risk of sports injuries.

Physical activity is an important part of maintaining overall health. However, certain precautions should be taken to minimize the risk of sports injuries. Using the correct equipment and maintaining equipment can help prevent sports injuries. Wearing the recommended protective gear can help shield the body against injury. Resting between workouts gives the body time to rest and repair. Starting activity slowly and gradually increasing strength, flexibility, and endurance gives muscles, bones, and other tissues the opportunity to adapt to more difficult workouts, minimizing the risk of injury. Finally, listening to the body and backing off at the first signs of pain, discomfort, stress, or overheating will help reduce the risk of sports injuries.

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