Introduction

Sports injuries
Sports injuries

The benefits of sports and exercise far outweigh the risks, but occassionally injuries do happen.

What causes sports injuries

Sports injuries can be caused by:

  • an accident – such as a fall or heavy blow
  • not warming up properly before exercising
  • using inappropriate equipment or poor technique
  • pushing yourself too hard

Almost any part of the body can be injured, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). The ankles and knees are particularly prone to injury.

Read about typical sports injuries.

What to do if you have an injury

If you've injured yourself, you may have immediate pain, tenderness, swelling, bruising, and restricted movement or stiffness in the affected area. Sometimes, these symptoms may only be noticeable several hours after exercising or playing sports.

Stop exercising if you feel pain, regardless of whether your injury happened suddenly or you’ve had the pain for a while. Continuing to exercise while injured may cause further damage and slow your recovery.

If you have a minor injury, you don't usually need to see a doctor and can look after yourself at home (see below). However, you may want to visit your GP or local NHS Minor Injury Unit if you need advice or your symptoms don't get better over time.

If you have a severe injury, such as a broken bone, dislocation or severe head injury, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible.

Treating a sports injury

You can usually treat common minor injuries yourself by:

  • resting the affected body part for the first 48-72 hours to prevent further damage
  • regularly applying an ice pack to the affected area during the first 48-72 hours to reduce swelling
  • using over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to relieve pain

If your symptoms are severe or don't improve within a few days or weeks, your GP may be able to refer you for specialist treatment and support, such as physiotherapy.

Serious injuries will occasionally require a procedure or operation to align any misplaced bones, fix any broken bones, or repair torn ligaments.

Depending on the type of injury, it can take a few weeks or months to make a full recovery. While recovering, it's important not to do too much too fast – aim to increase your level of activity gradually over time.

Read more about treating sports injuries.

Preventing sports injuries

You can reduce your risk of getting injured by:

  • warming up properly before you exercise
  • not pushing your body beyond your current fitness level
  • using the right equipment – for example, wearing running shoes for running, shin guards for football, and a gum shield for rugby
  • receiving coaching to learn correct techniques

When starting a new sport or activity, get advice and training from a qualified fitness trainer or sports coach.

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Types

Examples of sports injuries 

Sport injuries can affect almost any part of the body, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).

Sprains and strains are the most common type of sports injury. The difference between a strain and a sprain is that a:

  • sprain happens when one or more of the ligaments are stretched, twisted or torn.
  • muscle strain ("pulling a muscle") happens when muscle tissues or fibres are stretched or torn.

Symptoms of a sprain or strain can include pain, swelling, bruising and tenderness around a joint or in a muscle. You may also find it difficult to move the affected body part.

Other sports injuries include:

Back pain

Back pain is usually caused by a sprain or strain in the back. Warming up properly before exercise can reduce this risk of back pain.

Back pain is often felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back, but it can be felt anywhere from the neck and shoulders down to the buttocks and legs.

Bone injuries

Repetitive activity or a heavy impact while playing sport can injure bones, causing:

  • stress fractures – bone pain caused by tiny crack that develops in a bone as a result of repeated stresses (for example, during high-impact activities like distance running)
  • shin splints – painful shins caused by inflammation in the tissues surrounding the shin bone; this is common in sports that involve running
  • a broken ankle
  • a broken arm or wrist
  • a broken leg
  • a broken toe
  • a broken finger

A broken bone may cause swelling, significant bruising and tenderness around the injured area, and bleeding if the bone has broken the skin (open fracture). It's unlikely you will be able to use the affected limb.

The pain associated with a broken bone can be severe and make you feel faint, dizzy and sick.

If any part of your body looks deformed, including your fingers, you may have broken a bone. You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Hamstring injuries

Hamstring injuries are tears to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thighs. They're a common injury in athletes and recreational exercises.

Sudden lunging, running or jumping can cause the hamstring tendons or muscles to tear, which can be felt or heard as a pop and will be immediately painful. The muscle will spasm (seize up) and feel tight and tender. In some cases, there may also be swelling and bruising.

Head injuries 

Minor head injuries, such as bumps or bruises, are common and not usually serious. If you have any concerns, see your GP or local Minor Injury Unit.

You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 and ask for an ambulance if any symptoms of a severe head injury develop, such as:

  • unconsciousness (even if it was only very brief)
  • difficulty staying awake or still being sleepy several hours after the injury
  • a seizure or fit (when your body suddenly moves uncontrollably)
  • difficulty speaking, such as slurred speech
  • significantly blurred vision or double vision
  • difficulty understanding what people say
  • vomiting

Read more about the signs of a severe head injury.

Heel pain

Heel pain can occur when the thick band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot becomes inflamed. It's a common running injury.

It can cause a sharp and often severe pain when you place weight on your heel. In most cases, only one heel is affected, although some people have pain in both heels.

Heel pain and stiffness can also sometimes be caused by damage or tightness of the Achilles tendon, which runs up the back of the heel. This can occur gradually over a long period of time, or the tendon can rupture or tear suddenly.

If you experience sudden and severe pain in the back of your heel, which may be accompanied by a "popping" or "snapping" sound, you may have torn your Achilles tendon and should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately.

Inflamed joints

Joint inflammation (swollen) can be caused by conditions that affect the joints or structures around joints, such as bursa and tendons. Bursa are small fluid-filled sacs underneath the skin, found over the joints and between tendons and bones.

Examples of these types of conditions include:

  • bursitis – a swollen bursa, bursitis is common in the knee, hip and elbow
  • tendonitis – a swollen tendon around the shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger, thigh, knee or back of the heel

Tennis elbow is inflammation of the muscles and tendons around the elbow joint. It affects the outside of the elbow and is usually caused by repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm. Golfer’s elbow is similar, but the swelling occurs on the inside of the elbow.

Knee pain

Sudden knee pain is common in contact sports, especially those that involve twisting, and is usually caused by a sprain, strain or tendonitis.

Other knee injuries include:

  • Runner’s knee – caused by overuse of the knee; symptoms include soreness and discomfort beneath or to one side of your kneecap; it can also cause a grating sensation in your knee
  • Cartilage damage – where a piece of cartilage breaks off, affecting the movement of your joint; your joint may feel like it's locking or catching and it may also sometimes give way
  • A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)

Knee ligament damage

The ACL is one of four ligaments in your knee. It can tear if you stop or change direction suddenly, or if you land awkwardly from a jump. If you tear your ACL, you may hear a pop or crack at the time of your injury.

Other symptoms of a torn ACL include:

  • severe pain in your knee
  • instability in your knee, which means you cannot put much weight on it – especially when going up or down stairs
  • swelling in your knee
  • not having the full range of movement in your knee and, in particular, not being able to straighten your leg completely

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is common in sports that include bowling or throwing, such as cricket or baseball. Tendons around the shoulder (the rotor cuff) can become inflamed (tendonitis) or torn, causing pain.

A dislocated shoulder may be caused by a heavy fall or a sudden impact. The upper arm painfully "pops" out of the shoulder joint and you will not be able to move the arm.

If you have a dislocated shoulder, you should go to the A&E department of your nearest hospital. It may help to support the arm with a sling while you make your way there.

Skin injuries

Rubbing or chafing of skin can be caused by poorly fitting shoes or clothes. Make sure your sports gear is appropriate for your activity to help prevent chafing.

Get medical advice as soon as possible if you have a severe skin injury, such as a deep cut that won't stop bleeding. You may need treatment to stop the bleeding and stitches to close the wound.

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Treatment

Treatment for a sports injury will depend on factors such as how severe the injury is and the part of your body affected.

The links below provide information and advice about treatments for specific injuries:

Some general treatments that may be helpful for your injury are described below.

PRICE therapy

Minor injuries, such as mild sprains and strains, can often be initially treated at home using PRICE therapy for two or three days.

PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

  • Protection – protect the affected area from further injury – for example, by using a support.
  • Rest – avoid exercise and reduce your daily physical activity. Using crutches or a walking stick may help if you cannot put weight on your ankle or knee. A sling may help if you've injured your shoulder.
  • Ice – apply an ice pack to the affected area for 15–20 minutes every two to three hours. A bag of frozen peas, or similar, will work well. Wrap the ice pack in a towel to avoid it directly touching your skin and causing ice burn.
  • Compression – use elastic compression bandages during the day to limit swelling.
  • Elevation – keep the injured body part raised above the level of the heart whenever possible. This may also help to reduce swelling.

Pain relief

Painkillers, such as paracetamol can be used to help ease the pain.

Ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) tablets or creams can also be used to ease pain and reduce any swelling.

Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age.

Immobilisation

Immobilisation can sometimes help prevent further damage by reducing movement. It can also reduce pain, muscle swelling and muscle spasm.

For example, slings, splints and casts may be used to immobilise injured arms, shoulders, wrists and legs while you heal.

If you have a sprain, prolonged immobilisation is not usually necessary, and you should try gently moving the affected joint as soon as you are able to do so without experiencing significant pain.

Physiotherapy

Some people recovering from a long-term injury may benefit from physiotherapy.

This is a specialist treatment where techniques such as massage, manipulation and exercises are used to improve the range of motion, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and return the normal function of injured area.

A physiotherapist can also develop an exercise programme to help strengthen the affected body part and reduce the risk of the injury recurring.

Corticosteroid injection

A corticosteroid injection may be recommended if you have severe or persistent inflammation.

It can help relieve pain caused by your injury, although for some people the pain relief is minimal or only lasts for a short period of time.

If necessary, a corticosteroid injection can be repeated, but you'll usually only be able to have two or three injections a year.

Side effects can include thinning of the skin, loss of fat, and infection. The doctor treating you will be able to explain the possible side effects in more detail.

Surgery and procedures

Most sports injuries don't require surgery, but very severe injuries such as badly broken bones may require corrective treatment. This may include a manipulation or surgery to fix the bones with wires, plates, screws or rods.

In some cases, it may be possible to realign displaced bones without needing an operation.

Certain other injuries may also occasionally require surgery. For example, an operation may be needed to repair a torn knee ligament.

Read more about knee ligament surgery.

Recovery

Depending on the type of injury you have, it can take a few weeks to a few months or more to make a full recovery.

You shouldn't return to your previous level of activity until you've fully recovered, but you should aim to gently start moving the injured body part as soon as possible.

Gentle exercises should help to improve the area’s range of movement. As movement becomes easier and the pain decreases, stretching and strengthening exercises can be introduced.

Make sure you don't try to do too much too quickly because this can delay recovery. Start by doing frequent repetitions of a few simple exercises before gradually increasing the amount you do.

In some cases, the help of a professional, such as a physiotherapist or sports injury specialist, may be beneficial. They can design a suitable recovery programme and advise you about the exercises you should do and the number of repetitions. 

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The information on this page has been adapted by NHS Wales from original content supplied by NHS Choices.
Last Updated: 18/07/2017 16:14:56