An Overview of Sports Injuries

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Whether you are an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, if you play sports, you've probably faced injury at some point in your athletic career. Some sports problems are acute injuries, the result of a sudden event that cause very noticeable symptoms. Others are chronic, overuse conditions that may have more subtle signs.

Common sports injuries include sprains, strains, swollen muscles, shin splints, rotator cuff injuries, knee injuries, fractures, and dislocations. 

Symptoms

Pain is the primary symptom of a sports injury. Sometimes the pain comes on suddenly at the onset of an injury and other times the pain is delayed until later in the day or a few days later.

Pain: Joint tenderness can indicate the source of pain after an injury. The location of tenderness, the depth of pain, and the type of pain experienced can help your doctor determine the possible cause of your pain and injury. In the very early stages after injury, you may not notice swelling or any restriction in your ability to move. Tenderness when pressure is applied, however, can be an important indicator that a serious injury has occurred.

Swelling: 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. There are a few types of swelling, which can tip your doctor off as to the type of injury:

  • EffusionSwelling within a joint
  • Edema:  Swelling in the soft tissues
  • Hematoma:  Swelling due to bleeding into the soft tissue

Limiting swelling allows your body to progress healing to the next stages of the response to injury.

Stiffness: The ability or difficulty moving is a sign of the severity of injury to a joint. While pain can be difficult to quantify, the mobility of a joint, or lack of, is typically very clear. It is easy to compare the mobility of the uninjured extremity to the joint of concern. Joints that lack full mobility should generally be rested until motion is restored before resuming sports activity.

Instability: An unstable joint feels loose or like it wants to buckle or give out. This is often a sign of a ligament injury, as the injured joint is not adequately supported after it has been damaged. This is a common sign of an ACL tear in the knee.

Weakness: Pain that limits the strength of the injured area can be due to weakness. However, weakness can also signify structural damage to a muscle or tendon that prevents the normal function of the extremity. Inability to lift your arm or walk because of weakness should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Numbness and Tingling: Numbness or tingling is a sign of nerve irritation or injury. Sometimes nerves are directly damaged, 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: Redness can be a sign of inflammation. Redness can occur as the result of an abrasion, inflammation, allergy, or infection. Just because your skin is red does not necessarily mean an infection is present, but this can be a sign of one. If you have unexplained skin redness, you should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Common Sports Injuries

When it comes to sports injuries, joints are the most at-risk. Here are some common sports injuries by joint:

Shoulder: 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.

Elbow: 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: 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.

Finger: Jammed fingers can describe many types of sports-related finger injuries. Dislocations of finger joints and finger swelling are common, especially in ball sports like basketball and soccer.

Spine: 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: Groin strains have always been a common hip pain diagnosis. Many hip problems once attributed to a muscle strain, such as FAI and labral tears, are becoming better understood, but groin strain injuries are still the most common.

Knee: 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: 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.

Foot: 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.

Causes

Sports injuries fall into two categories: acute and chronic. An acute injury is the result of a sudden event that results in noticeable symptoms. This could be a slip, fall, tackle, running into something, or banging your arm on something.

A chronic injury may begin as an acute injury that does not heal completely or may be due to overuse. Chronic injuries tend to develop symptoms over time and may cause an acute flareup of symptoms.

Pain is a sign from your body that you should stop and rest.

Acute injuries are typically the result of an incident or accident that may not be avoidable and are a part of playing sports. Some accidents may be avoided by having proper gear and equipment and safe playing conditions. For example, playing on wet leaves can lead to slipping and falling.

Chronic injuries are often caused by overuse or improper form. May athletes play through pain, which can lead to chronic injuries. Chronic injuries may also be due to not stretching after exercise.

When to Seek Treatment

Sports injuries are common, and seeing a doctor for every ache and pain is not realistic for most athletes. That said, there are some signs you should seek medical attention.

If you have an injury that is not improving with simple treatment steps, or if is worsening despite your efforts, see a trained professional.

Many athletic injuries are treated by non-physician professionals, who are well-trained to diagnose and manage these injuries, such as athletic trainers and physical therapists.

Some signs that you should be seen by a medical professional include:

  • Difficulty using the injured extremity (walking, lifting your arm, etc.)
  • Inability to place weight on the extremity
  • Limited mobility of a joint
  • Deformity of the injured area
  • Bleeding or skin injury
  • Developing signs of infection (fevers, chills, sweats)

Diagnosis

Sports injuries can be diagnosed by a sports doctor or orthopedists. Your doctor will take a medical history, inquire about how the injury occurred and perform a physical examination. In addition, your doctor will likely take x-rays to rule out any broken bones and may order further imaging, such as an MRI to determine soft tissue damage.

Treatment

Proper treatment of any injury requires an understanding of the cause of the problem; if there is any question of the underlying diagnosis, then you should seek medical attention. In a sports setting, this may be a physician, but it may also be an athletic trainer or physical therapist.

When a sports injury occurs, you should cease training and competing to allow for injury evaluation and to develop a treatment plan.

Some sports injuries can be managed with a plan to return to immediate activity, while most require a period of rest and inactivity.

In general, efforts are aimed to control inflammation and progress the healing response. The acronym R.I.C.E. is a helpful guide for immediate treatment of most acute injuries.

When performing R.I.C.E. treatment, you will take the following steps:

  1. Rest: Limit the forces acting on the injured part of the body. This generally means stopping your sport activity, and it may mean using crutches, a sling, or other aid to fully rest the area.
  2. Ice: Ice is helpful at controlling swelling and inflammation, and it can also help tremendously with pain reduction. Many athletes who ice an acute injury find they don't need pain pills to help alleviate discomfort.
  3. Compress: Compression is performed by snugly, but not tightly, wrapping the injured part of the body with a compression bandage. Too-tight constriction can cause worsening of your symptoms and other problems.
  4. Elevate: Elevating the injured extremity can also help reduce swelling and inflammation and, in turn, reduce pain.

After the initial healing period, your doctor will determine whether additional treatment is needed. For severe sports injuries, surgery may be required. Your medical provider will direct you to the right specialist for your injury.

A Word From Verywell

Taking a break from your regular (and perhaps beloved) activity can be tough to swallow. But remember: Letting a sports injury go untreated could potentially sideline you for far longer, or even prevent you from returning to your sport altogether. Listen to your body and seek help when you think you need it.

Once you have started the R.I.C.E. steps, a more specific treatment plan can be developed. This is where your specific injury will be addressed, and an individualized treatment plan can be developed.

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