Sports injuries are common, whether you’re an elite athlete, a marathoner or a fitness class enthusiast. Every year, about 8.6 million Americans are sidelined by sports- and recreation-related injuries.
The risk of injury should not deter you from playing sports and exercising. Physical activity is good for the body and mind. However, being aware of the most common sports injuries means you can take steps to reduce your risk of getting hurt.
Here are the nine injuries UNC Health sports medicine specialist Lauren Porras, MD, sees the most in her clinic, how they are treated and her advice for how to prevent them.
A concussion is a brain injury that usually occurs when there is a blow to the head, but it also can occur when the body jars so forcefully, such as from a fall or collision, that the brain moves inside the skull.
“Concussions are like snowflakes because each is so unique,” Dr. Porras says. “Because the brain is such a complicated organ, every single concussion that comes in can have a vast variety of symptoms.”
These symptoms can include headaches, difficulty with balance, nausea, vomiting and problems concentrating.
Concussions usually will resolve on their own in three to four weeks, but during this time, limit any sort of activity that’s overstimulating to the brain, Dr. Porras says.
This includes screen time in front of the television, computers, mobile devices and video games. Do not engage in any sport or activity that could cause another concussion, but early moderate cardiovascular exercise is a good idea.
Make sure a healthcare provider who is familiar with managing concussions evaluates you and helps you determine when it is safe to return to your normal activities, Dr. Porras says.
In sports where there is no guaranteed way to prevent a concussion, making sure you are playing with proper technique can be helpful.
2. Ankle Sprains
An ankle sprain occurs when your ankle rolls either inward or outward, which causes the ligaments in the ankle to pull or tear, depending on the severity of the roll.
“Most people will experience an ankle sprain in their lifetime,” Dr. Porras says. “Usually, it resolves (on its own) in a couple of weeks.”
Symptoms of an ankle sprain are pain, swelling and bruising.
To treat an ankle sprain, you can wrap it using a compression bandage, use an ankle brace, ice it or take an anti-inflammatory medication, such as Advil. For more severe sprains, your doctor may prescribe crutches or a walking boot. Sometimes you may need physical therapy.
“Most people are able to recover very nicely from it, and it tends to be very rare that you would need surgery to fix your ligaments,” Dr. Porras says.
To help prevent ankle sprains, walk or jog to warm up your muscles. Make sure to wear proper-fitting shoes, and avoid uneven surfaces.
3. Hamstring and Adductor Strains
Athletes who are playing sports that involve either pushing off or jumping can strain their hamstrings or adductor muscles, the groin muscles on the inside of the thigh.
“There is a strong contraction of the muscle with these types of movements that causes tearing of the muscle,” Dr. Porras says.
Hamstring tears can be mild, moderate or severe, and usually they will heal on their own with time away from the activity.
Putting ice on the muscle also helps, as does stretching. Sometimes you may need physical therapy. If you have a complete tear and the muscle pulls off the bone, you may need surgery.
To help prevent a hamstring or adductor strain, make sure you warm up your muscles with light activity.
4. Shin Splints
Shin splints occur when the muscles, tendons and tissue around your shinbone, which is called the tibia, become inflamed. This happens when there is a pulling of the soft tissue along the bone that runs along the leg, and it usually occurs if you increase your activity significantly over a short period, Dr. Porras says.
“The body doesn’t have time to do a gradual accommodation to the increase in activity,” Dr. Porras says.
To treat and prevent shin splints, back down your training, make sure your running shoes have good tread on them, and try to avoid running up and down hills or on asphalt. Stretching and physical therapy can help relieve pain. Consider switching to low-impact exercises such as swimming, cycling or water aerobics until you can gradually work back into running.
5. Stress Fractures
Metatarsal stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone that result from a weakening in the bones. This weakening is often due to an imbalance in calories and nutrients in the body. If you actually break a bone, it’s called a fracture.
The best treatment is to rest until the bone starts healing, and then you can slowly increase activity. Rarely surgery is needed.
To help prevent and treat stress fractures, wear proper-fitting footwear, avoid increasing exercise intensity too quickly over a short period, and “make sure you are getting proper nutrition that includes micro- and macronutrients to accommodate for increasing energy requirements,” Dr. Porras says.
Macronutrients are those nutrients that the body needs in large amounts, such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Micronutrients are nutrients that the body needs in smaller amounts, including vitamins and minerals such as calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K.
6. Knee Sprains
A knee sprain is a general term for either the stretching or tearing of a ligament in the knee. The most common location for a knee sprain is in the MCL (medial collateral ligament), which runs on the inside of the knee.
“It is usually pulled if there’s an inward force that’s transmitted to the knee,” Dr. Porras says.
For example, you switch directions quickly while playing tennis, or a player on the opposing soccer team collides with your knee and you fall.
An MCL sprain typically heals on its own in a couple of weeks to a month. Wearing a brace and physical therapy are important for recovery.
Other knee sprains occur in the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and PCL (posterior cruciate ligament).
“If you have a complete tear of the ACL, that can predispose you to more instability and wearing down of the joint over time,” Dr. Porras says.
Wearing a brace and physical therapy help heal a torn PCL. Surgery is usually needed for a torn ACL.
Proper warmup, strength and conditioning, and good technique can reduce the risk of knee sprains.
7. Runner’s Knee
Runner’s knee, formally called patellofemoral syndrome, is knee pain caused by an imbalance of the muscles in the knee.
“Runner’s knee tends to be associated with weak quadricep muscles, weak gluteal muscles, tight IT bands and tight hamstrings,” Dr. Porras says.
Weaknesses in these leg muscles cause an uneven pull on the kneecap, which then grinds against the femoral groove in the knee. This results in pain, popping and swelling in the knee.
To prevent and treat runner’s knee, make sure you have supportive running shoes, and run on flat, smooth surfaces, which tend to be more forgiving on your joints. Start with a warmup and end with a cool-down. Focusing on gluteal strengthening, quad strengthening and stretching can be beneficial. Physical therapy also can help.
8. Jumper’s Knee
Patellar tendinitis, more commonly known as jumper’s knee, occurs in the front part of the knee.
“It’s usually associated with jumping sports, so we see this more for basketball and volleyball players,” Dr. Porras says. “What happens is the repetitive overuse and tugging on that patellar tendon can cause it to get inflamed and irritated.”
Wearing a brace called a patellar tendon strap helps ease pain, as does taking anti-inflammatory medication such as Advil.
“Addressing the mechanics of the athlete’s jumping techniques is really important,” Dr. Porras says.
Physical therapy that focuses on progressively increasing load on the knee to allow the tendon to more gradually adapt is often helpful.
If the athlete continues to have symptoms, nitroglycerin patches on the knee can help improve blood flow to the tendon, or an orthobiologic treatment (substances taken from the body) called PRP (platelet-rich plasma) can help.
“PRP is a treatment where we draw blood from the patient, extract the platelets and the healing cells, and then inject that into the tendon,” Dr. Porras says. “There is also a minimally invasive, in-office surgical procedure called Tenex that I do that can help clean up the damaged area of the tendon and leave the healthy tendon.”
If none of these treatments work, surgery may be necessary.
9. Tennis or Golfer’s Elbow
Tendinitis that occurs on either the outside or the inside of the elbow is often called tennis or golfer’s elbow. If it occurs on the outside of the elbow, it’s called tennis elbow. If it occurs on the inside, it’s called golfer’s elbow, Dr. Porras says.
While these conditions cause elbow pain, they are actually a wrist problem. “They’re an overuse injury that comes from repetitive extension or flexing of the wrist,” Dr. Porras says.
“The common indications for that are tennis and golf, but nine times out of 10 when I see somebody, they’re not a tennis player or a golfer,” Dr. Porras says.
Wearing a brace or physical therapy tends to be helpful in treating tennis or golfer’s elbow.
“If it’s really irritated, you can consider a cortisone shot to calm down some of the inflammation in the area,” Dr. Porras says. “If it ends up being persistent, Tenex is an option.”
Injured playing sports or exercising? Talk to your doctor or find one near you.