Other than sitting on the sidelines, there’s really no way to avoid some risk of injury as an athlete. There are basically two types of sports injuries: acute and overuse. Acute injuries happen suddenly, such as a hard hit in football or a bad landing after a layup in basketball. They cause bruises, muscle sprains, or even a broken bone. Overuse injuries are usually a result of training too hard (or too long without enough rest), or not training correctly. Examples of overuse injuries include stress fractures to bones in runners or gymnasts, or strains and tears of muscles and tendons (rotator cuff shoulder injuries in baseball pitchers or swimmers).
Common signs of sports injuries
Your body does a good job of alerting you when there is something wrong. Pain is an important sign to pay attention to. The old saying, “No pain, no gain” should NOT be your motto. While a little muscle soreness after exercise can be normal, discomfort that lasts for several days should be checked out. Also, swelling, bruising, or limitation of movement (stiffness) are also important signs of an injury which need evaluation. In cases of acute injury where you get hit in the leg or fall, the pain and swelling could be so severe that you may have trouble walking. This could be due to a sprain or possibly even a fracture (break in one or more bones). Or, you may see that a finger or elbow joint is out of place (dislocated). Sometimes, you may get an abrasion (scrape) from sliding on the base path or a laceration (cut) from a spike or a skate.
What to do if you have been hurt…
Quick action is very important to reduce the damage and prevent further problems. For abrasions (scrapes), it is necessary to clean the wound and put an antibiotic ointment on the area like bacitracin or Neosporin to prevent infection. If there is a laceration (cut), apply firm pressure with a clean cloth right away to stop the bleeding, and then apply an antibiotic ointment and a band aid to prevent infection. If the wound is deep and/or wide, applying pressure may not be enough to stop the wound from oozing blood. You may need to go to an emergency room for medication attention and possibly stitches.
For other types of acute injuries, such as a twisted ankle or knee, important first steps to management should include: RICE. This stands for R – rest; I -ICE; C – Compression; and E – elevation. Essentially, this means laying down, applying an ice pack to the area, wrapping it up with an ace bandage, and propping the ankle/knee up on a couple of pillows. All these steps will reduce swelling. Ibuprofen or Naproxen can also help with swelling and ease pain. However, persistent discomfort, extreme swelling, bruising or difficulty walking may suggest the need to see a medical professional for further evaluation. An x-ray or an MRI may be needed to provide your medical professional with more information about how much damage has been done.
Overuse injuries can initially be treated by rest and pain medications. Again, discomfort that lasts for more than a couple of days should be checked out by a medical professional. This is very important for young athletes that are still growing. Sometimes overuse injuries can cause fractures (a break in the bone) which may need special treatment.
When can I get back into action?
It depends on how bad the injury is. Small scrapes or cuts are usually minor, and if they can be covered, and if you are not too uncomfortable, you may be able to resume playing the same day or shortly thereafter.
Deeper cuts that require stitches may need a week or so to heal. Coming back too early may cause the wound to re-open and bleed, so take it easy and rest.
Sprains can take several days or even weeks to heal, even after the bruising and swelling go away. Your medical professional may have you go to physical therapy where you would learn special exercises to help improve your strength and mobility. Once improvement has been seen, your medical professional may want to evaluate you again before clearing you to participate in sports. It is important not to rush back on the field or court before getting cleared. If you are not completely healed, you could risk getting hurt again and being out of action for an even longer period of time.
Similarly, for fractures, depending on the bone or bones involved, healing could take weeks or even months. After removal of the splint or cast, a period of rehabilitation and physical therapy may be needed to build up strength and flexibility. Again, your medical professional will have to make sure you are healthy enough before you can resume playing.
Overuse injuries may also require several weeks of rest, medication and physical therapy before playing again.
How do I prevent injuries?
While injuries are a part of every sport, there are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of getting hurt.
Being in good shape and exercising regularly is helpful. It may also be useful to consider taking time off to rest between seasons, or to consider playing different sports to reduce the chances of overuse injuries. For example, if you are a pitcher in the Spring, you may want run track in the fall. This will keep you in good physical condition which minimizing the wear and tear on your shoulders and elbows.
Stretching and warming up before practicing or playing is important to reduce the chances of “pulling” or tearing a muscle. Many athletes are using yoga or martial arts to improve their flexibility and reduce injuries.
Wearing proper equipment and using appropriate techniques may also decrease the chances of injury. Letting your coaches know when you are tired or fatigued is also important. Taking a break during a game can give your body a chance to rest and recover from exertion. It is also a good idea to make sure you get enough fluids before and during activities to reduce cramping, dehydration and muscle fatigue.
If you’d like additional support or tips, feel free to talk to a BeWell staff member. BeWell staff are trained in a variety of health topics. BeWell staff can also connect you to medical care in the New York City area, for treatment and rehabilitation of sports injuries.