An Overview of Sports Injuries

Woman getting her knee taped

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In This Article

Whether you are 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 cause very noticeable symptoms. Others are chronic, overuse conditions that may have more subtle signs either at first or consistently over time.

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Watch Now: How to Treat a Sports Injury with R.I.C.E. Technique

Common Sports Injuries

A sports injury can be caused by an accident, impact, poor training practices, improper equipment, lack of conditioning, or insufficient warmup and stretching. Muscle sprains and strains, tears of the ligaments and tendons, dislocated joints, fractured bones, and head injuries are common. 

While joints are most vulnerable to sports injuries, any part of the body can get hurt on the court or field. Here is a closer look at common injuries for different parts of the body.

Head

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 longterm problems with memory and executive function. If you suspect you or your loved one has a concussion, seek medical attention. 

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 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 FAI and labral tears, are becoming better understood, but groin strain injuries are still the most common.

Thigh

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. 

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 typically fall into two categories, acute or chronic, and can stem from direct impact, loading (putting more force on a joint than it can handle), or overuse.

An acute injury is the result of an incident or accident that results in noticeable symptoms. For example, a slip, fall, tackle, or collision can result in an acute injury. While some accidents are just a part of playing sports, others may be avoided by having proper gear and equipment and safe playing conditions. For example, playing soccer on wet leaves can lead to slipping and falling.

A chronic injury is a longer-term injury. It may begin as an acute injury that does not heal completely or may be caused by overuse or improper form. May athletes play through pain, which can lead to chronic injuries.

Symptoms

Sports injury symptoms can come on quickly at the point of injury or may appear gradually over the course of a few hours or days. When an athlete takes a hard fall, rolls an ankle, or gets otherwise banged up, the typical response is to shake it off and push through the pain, which can lead to longer-term problems.

Symptoms from a chronic or overuse injury tend to develop over time, however, acute flareups of old injuries can be common. Symptoms of a sports injury include:

Pain

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 doctor determine the possible cause.

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.

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.

There are a few types of swelling, and what you experience 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 in the soft tissue

Stiffness

While pain can be difficult to quantify, mobility can often be measured by checking the 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 building up to more exercise. See a sports doctor or physical therapist to assess and treat mobility problems prior to 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 (like an ACL tear) as the injured joint is not adequately supported after it has been damaged.

Weakness

An injury that limits the strength of the injured may signify structural damage to a muscle or tendon that prevents the normal function of the extremity. 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; 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 at the injury site can be due to inflammation, 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.

When to See a Doctor

Sports injuries are common and seeing a doctor 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, or if 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 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
  • Signs of infection (fevers, chills, sweats)
  • Headache, dizziness, confusion, or loss of consciousness following a head injury

Diagnosis

Acute and chronic injuries can be diagnosed by a sports physician or orthopedist, although non-physician professionals trained to diagnose and manage these injuries—such as athletic trainers and physical therapists—may also do so.

You will need to provide a medical history, information about how the injury occurred, and undergo a physical examination.

During the physical examination, your healthcare professional will palpate the area and ask about the degree of pain or tenderness. You will be asked to move the injured area to test its range of motion as well.

Depending on the suspected injury and level of pain or disability, your doctor may take X-rays to rule out any broken bones. While some broken bones are evident on initial X-ray, some fractures (e.g., a simple fracture of the wrist or hairline fracture in the foot) may not be noticeable until a few days later, once healing of the injury has begun.

Additional diagnostic imaging tests may be ordered to determine soft tissue damage. These may be ordered during the initial visit or after a period of treatment is ineffective and include: 

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): This is often used for diagnostic imaging of muscle injuries, joint damage, sprains, fractures, and head injuries sustained during sports. MRIs use radio waves within a strong magnetic field to examine musculoskeletal structures, including bones, tendons, muscles, ligaments, and nerves.
  • Ultrasound: Useful for assessing tendon damage, ultrasound uses sound waves to take real-time images of superficial soft tissues. During an ultrasound, the radiologist may ask you to move the joint to see how motion affects the tendon.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans: A CT scan provides a more detailed look at bones and soft tissues. This test can show hairline fractures and small irregularities within complex joints.

Treatment

The course of treatment will depend on the location and severity of your injury. Initial treatment for many sports injuries is aimed at controlling inflammation and promoting the healing response.

The acronym R.I.C.E. is a helpful guide for the 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 sports 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 an initial period, rest should be replaced by protection and optimal loading. This technique is known as P.O.L.I.C.E. (protection, optimal loading, ice, compression, and elevation). Protecting the injured joint with an assistive device, such as crutches or a sling, while gently moving the joint and gradually putting weight on the injury may speed healing.

After the initial healing period, your doctor will determine what, if any, additional treatment is needed and may refer you to a specialist for your specific injury.

Treatments for sports injuries include:

  • Immobilization with a splint, cast, or brace
  • Medication for pain
  • Pain-relieving injections, such as a cortisone shot
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery

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 professional help when you need it.

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