Sport has become increasingly competitive and lucrative in recent years. Athletes are attuned to achieving maximum levels of fitness and strength in order to remain at the top of their game, and many contact sports have become a brutal contest for domination. Injuries or strains are certain to result at some point for most elite athletes.
However, although injuries to professional athletes are more newsworthy, accidents and injuries can also happen to casual sports enthusiasts and weekend warriors at any time. A reasonable degree of physical fitness, muscle tone, flexibility and a careful training strategy will greatly diminish the chance of injury, especially if coupled with an understanding of your individual limitations. Without adequate prevention, even casual pursuits on the golf course or running trail can result in stress, strain or injury. Some injuries can even result in long-term disability. When performed properly regular, moderate exercise is known to assist in maintaining body health and vitality for the young and old alike.
Preventing sports injuries
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This old axiom can be directly applied to physical fitness, and is the first step in achieving sporting goals. With inactivity, strength and flexibility will slowly diminish, so getting back into shape should also be done slowly and steadily. The temptation to go full speed ahead should be kept in check, and a gradual build-up is recommended to avoid injury setbacks.
Preventative measures include:
- Having a sensible training plan
- Develop the skills, strength and fitness required for your activity
- Increase your load or participation gradually
- Use appropriate and well maintained equipment
- Include rest days for recovery
- Warm up and cool down
- Stretch muscles regularly to maintain flexibility
- Avoid the onset of fatigue or dehydration
- Pay attention to new symptoms that may indicate early injury
It’s important to understand personal limitations and to be aware of any symptoms that could indicate injury. Feeling a little sore or tired is normal after exercise but ongoing pain or diminished mobility are signs that damage has occurred. Detecting small problems before they escalate into major hindrances is an extremely valuable preventative measure.
In general, injuries associated with sports result from acute accidents or from overuse.
Common acute injuries include:
Ligament Sprains: These are usually the result of damage to the connective tissue that connects bones. Sprain damage varies greatly and in most cases e.g. ankle sprains or medial ligament of the knee, the body heals itself over the space of 6-8 weeks. Some ligaments need more attention, such as the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee, which may require surgical intervention.
Muscle strains or haematomas: A simple misstep or stumble on an uneven surface can result in excessive muscle movement beyond the normal capacity. A muscle can also be damaged by a direct blow, such as a “cork” in the thigh.
Fractures: These occur from sudden severe force on a bone. An Xray will demonstrate the nature of the break and usually some form of splint, such as plaster or a brace, will be needed to hold the bone in place whilst it heals. Occasionally some fractures need surgery.
Dislocations: Common in contact sport and extremely disabling, dislocations are the result of bones forced out of alignment with other bones and tearing the supporting connecting tissues. The knee cap, shoulder and fingers are frequent sites. The joint can pop back in itself (a subluxation) or may require reduction by a trained professional or in the emergency department.
Cramps: These are temporary but often very painful manifestations that usually result from muscles working excessively hard in an unfamiliar fashion and made worse by dehydration. A moderate level of fitness coupled with adequate fluid intake is often the best prevention.
Acute soft tissue injuries should initially be treated with ice, compression and simple pain relief if required. They should only be rested and protected for a short time. If the tissues are over protected, stiffness can result and the injury takes longer to rehabilitate. Gentle, early movement is preferable. Your treating therapist can advise you on exactly is required for your particular injury.
Common overuse injuries include:
Tendinopathy: This injury is caused by working tendons (which join muscles to bones) too hard too soon. They start to become stiff, sore and sometimes swollen. Common sites include the Achilles tendon, patellar tendon and rotator cuff. Tendinopathy can occur without any symptoms at all. If it does cause pain, it will usually be painful until the tissue is warmed up only to return again after cool down. It is often painful first thing in the morning or when getting up from sitting. Symptoms can last many months and it is not usually necessary to avoid pain altogether, indeed, this may cause the tissues to become weaker and take even longer to settle. It is helpful to get professional advice from a Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician regarding your tendinopathy, as early attention may be able to reduce the length of time with the condition.
Stress fractures: Persistent, excessive load on bones without giving them time to recover can lead to stress fractures. These are common in runners’ legs, causing pain every time they strike the ground. These will need accurate diagnosis and treatment.
The above is a small overview of typical sports injuries which can often be prevented.
First Aid for Sports Injuries
Although oversimplified and not always applicable to more severe injuries, the following strategies are applicable to many soft tissue injuries.
- Protection: Small injuries can be healed using elastic bandages or wraps, sometimes with the addition off a splint. Protecting the injured area from further damage is essential.
- Rest: Ignoring this recovery practice can exacerbate an injury and cause further complications. Resting an injured limb doesn’t need to signal the end of all exercise and can be an opportunity to diversify workouts. For example, walking is always beneficial and won’t put pressure on a shoulder that needs some recovery time.
- Ice: For inexpensive and fast pain relief, it’s hard to beat ice. Ice is a great anti-inflammatory and is often used to reduce pain and swelling. A regulated ice-pack schedule works best and is often enhanced by follow-up heat treatments.
- Compression: An elastic bandage neither too loose nor tight, often combined with some cushioning, can reduce inflammation and swelling.
- Elevation: Sports injuries sometimes result in fluid build-up in the affected area. Keeping the injured area elevated will help drain unwanted fluids away, thereby reducing swelling and pain.
If the injury is severe, disabling, taking too long to settle or is stopping you enjoying your activities, a Sports and Exercise Medicine Physician should be consulted to determine an accurate diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.