Beyond minor abrasions, blisters, and cramps, the most common sports injuries are due to overuse. For example, tennis players who repeatedly stress their forearm muscles may develop tennis elbow, runners whose shoes aren’t supportive enough may be plagued by shin splints or runner’s knee, and baseball players who don’t work to strengthen their shoulder in the off-season may find themselves with a shoulder impingement. Running—since it involves every muscle from the foot to the neck, putting particular strain on the legs—leads to the most injuries, and running is an essential element of many active sports. But everyone from amateur practitioners to pro athletes are plagued by these seven most common sports injuries. Knowing how to prevent and treat these injuries can keep their occurrence rare and minor.
1: Pulled muscle
The most common sports injury is pulled muscles. Muscles get “pulled” when a sudden, severe force stretches the fibers beyond their capacity. If only some fibers tear, then it’s a pulled muscle; if all of them tear, then it’s a full-blown muscle tear. Hamstring pulls are particularly common among runners, and most everyone has experienced a pulled calf muscle. Stretching before and after exercise helps prevent muscle pulls, but even so they may pull from overuse, fatigue, weakness, lack of flexibility, or a sudden fall. Treat a pulled muscle with ice and rest until the pain and swelling subside. An anti-inflammatory pain reliever may also help. The muscle fibers must be gradually re-lengthened with gentle stretching as soon as it’s tolerable, so the fibers don’t heal in a shortened state. If repeated pulls occur around one area, work to strengthen the immediate and surrounding muscles.
2: Runner’s knee
Knee injuries account for more than half of sports injuries. Many of the kneecap’s aches and pains are grouped into a catch-all bucket of “runner’s knee,” which of course affects more than just runners. Runner’s knee is a misalignment of the kneecap; as the knee flexes or straightens out, it pulls off to the side and rubs the side of the groove, wearing our the cartilage and sometimes causing fluid to build up and swell the knee. You can prevent runner’s knee by wearing properly supportive footwear and strengthening the quadriceps muscle, both of which help align the kneecap in the center of its groove. Treat runner’s knee by stretching and massaging the quadriceps, which stretches the muscle fibers and alleviates the contraction that’s pulling the kneecaps up.
3: Shoulder impingement
A very delicate part of the body, the shoulder is involved in about 20% of sports injuries. The shoulder bones are held together by a group of muscles called the rotator cuff muscles, and they are responsible for the shoulder’s fine movements. If the shoulder joint is continually stressed—as in sports that involve throwing or hitting a ball (baseball, tennis, golf, volleyball, etc.) as well as weight training and swimming—then the rotator cuff muscles stretch out, which allows the head of the joint to become loose within the shoulder socket. When the arm is raised it can catch the tendon of the short head of the biceps between the ball and the socket, impinging the shoulder and inflaming the tendons. Strengthening the rotator cuff muscles is the best way to keep the joint in the socket and avoid this injury. If you impinge a shoulder, the RICE method may be used, but if the pain persists then physical therapy may be necessary.
4: Shin splints
Affecting athletes who run a lot, shin splints are pains in the muscles near the shin bones. The muscle responsible for raising the arch of the foot attaches to the shin bone on the inside of the leg, and repeated stress can cause the arch to pull some of its muscle fibers loose from the shin bone, causing minor internal bleeding and pain. They occur when running or jumping on a hard surface, especially for people who aren’t used to exercising or who increase the intensity of their workout too fast, or simply from overuse or unsupportive shoes. To prevent shin splints, increase arch support to avoid excessive pronation and pull on the tendon. It can also help to vary the surface you’re working on, for example, switching from asphalt to grass to soften the impact. Treatment consists of ice, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication.
5: Tennis elbow
Elbow injuries account for 7% of all sports injuries. Tennis elbow affects the muscles of the forearm and the tendon the connects the muscles to the elbow bones—in other words, the muscles that bend the wrist backward and cause the wrist to turn the palm face up. When overused—as in sports like tennis and golf—these muscles become inflamed. It’s called tennis elbow because the backhand tennis stroke is a common culprit in this injury. Golfers experience pain in the non-dominant arm, as the forearm pulls the club through the swing. The best prevention is to re-situate the body positioning to take stress off the elbow. Forearm-strengthening exercises may also help, such as squeezing a soft rubber ball.
6: Ankle sprain
Ankle sprains are common among athletes who jump, run, and turn quickly, including soccer, hockey, basketball, and volleyball players. The quick movements lead to a twisted ankle (stretched ligaments) or sprained ankle (partial or full tear), often when the foot rolls to the outside instead of landing squarely on the sole. The ankle may swell up and turn black and blue; if it can still bear some weight, it’s probably not broken, but an x-ray can rule out a hair-line fracture. The best treatment is RICE, which limits internal bleeding and reduces the swelling. Prevent ankle sprains by—you guessed it—strengthening the muscles, particularly the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, all of which promote stability. A lace-up or compression ankle brace can also help, especially with weak ankles.
7: Achilles tendinitis
The largest tendon in the body, the Achilles connects the calf muscles to the heel bone and is responsible for lifting the heel off the ground. This tendon may suffer tendinitis and become inflamed when overused, especially in sports that involve frequent running or jumping, such as basketball, lacrosse, skiing, and volleyball. Excessive pronation of the ankle and food can cause the Achilles to tear—which announces itself with a pain like a gunshot. Treatment of a minor Achilles tendinitis involves RICE, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication, but tears may require surgery. Prevention includes strengthening the muscles, particularly the hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.
If you or a loved one experience any sports-related injury, trust The Smith Clinic to get you back on your feet. Call us today to schedule a consultation and get on the road to recovery!
Note: “RICE” is a common treatment for many minor injuries. It stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.