How to Handle a Sports Injury

by Jennifer L. Rice, August 3, 2018

Dr. Jennifer Rice

At some point all of us experience an injury while exercising or playing a sport. Whether it's an ankle sprain, back pain or shoulder discomfort, what we do from the point of the injury moving forward can greatly impact are ability to get back to the activity we love. Good rule of thumb is if an injury doesn't improve over the course of 1-2 weeks, seek medical attention, either from your physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon.

A sprain happens when you stretch or tear on of your ligaments. A ligament runs from bone to bone and typically occurs when you twist or turn the wrong direction. Sprains can occur in any joint in the body. Signs of a sprain, depending on the degree of injury, can include pain, bruising, swelling, joint stiffness and instability.

A strain is different than a sprain and occurs to the muscles or tendons. Muscles are the soft tissues that make your bones move, and the tendons are the soft tissue that attaches the muscle to the bone for that movement to occur. Strains occur when the muscle or tendon is overstretched or if the structures are tight. Symptoms of a strain, again depends on the severity of the injury, include pain, muscle spasms, weakness and possible noted soft tissue contour.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the most sports-related emergency room visits are due to strains and sprains; 29% to be exact (1). The second are broken bones. Ankles are the most often injured body part at 12%, which is understandable since the largest tendon in the human body is the Achilles tendon in the ankle (1).

When should you seek medical attention? The answer is if you have severe pain, swelling, numbness or tingling, instability, joint deformity or are unable to bear weight on the area. If you do not have any of these signs or symptoms, you may be safe to treat yourself with RICE principles of rest, ice, compression and elevation above your heart of the injured area. Rest helps your body heal while ice, compression and elevation assist in managing swelling of the injured area. Swelling is a normal component of the healing process, however, attempting to manage it with these strategies can decrease pain experienced and speed the healing process along. Other common treatments for managing swelling include over the counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as Ibuprofen, and wrapping or bracing the injured area.

Other sports related injuries occur depending on the activity that you are participating in. For example, runner's knee is the most common running overuse injury due to irritation of the cartilage in the knee. There are several possible causes for a runner to develop this condition such as not performing a proper warm up or cool down, increasing running distance too quickly or improperly fitted footwear.  For specific sport-related injuries such as this it is best to seek the professional advice and instruction from an orthopedic physical therapist. For all sport related injuries, body mechanics can play a particularly important role in the cause of over stressing soft tissues and joints; therefore, treatment needs to be individually devised by an orthopedic physical therapist.

What do weight lifters and golfers have in common? They both suffer the highest rate of lower back, spinal, injuries. Weight lifters because the lower back is responsible for providing a stable base and absorbing compressive forces when lifting objects.  Golfers suffer lower back injuries due to the compressive and twisting forces the lumbar spine is required to absorb during the follow through phase of a golfers' swing.  An inability to absorb these forces by the lower back can result in damage to any of the structures in the spine. With any lower back injury, the sooner you seek medical advice from a physical therapist or spine specialist the easier your pain is to treat successfully.

The most common elbow injury is called lateral epicondylitis or "tennis elbow" and is caused by overuse. Basically the elbow suffers the same minor injury over and over again and results in inflammation, microscopic tissue tears and results in pain. About 90% of people who suffer tennis elbow usually get better with rest, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy and possible bracing of the forearm (2).

When should you stretch? The best time to stretch is after you exercise because your body is warm and you can make more permanent changes in the soft tissues. If you want to stretch before your activity make sure you perform a gentle, dynamic warm up first.

The take home message is to seek the professional advice of an orthopedic surgeon or physical therapist if pain persists for more than 1-2 weeks. Sports related injuries are always easier to treat if treatment begins early.


  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
  2. How can I take care of my tennis Elbow?

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