Understanding and Preventing Sports Injuries

Understanding and Preventing Sports Injuries

Injuries that occur while playing sports are very common. Depending on the magnitude of the damage, sports injuries can hurt an athlete enough to limit them from finishing a game to permanently disabling them. Sports injuries account for over 4 million visits to hospital emergency rooms every year. Due to the increase in competitiveness of sports among kids, about 25% of these visits are from children under the age of 14.

While being active in sports is important for good physical fitness, it is crucial to recognize how the human body works, what stresses it most, and what kinds of injuries can occur if precautions are not followed. This article will discuss some of the major types of injuries due to sports, how to prevent injuries, and care of the body when this does happen.

The Foot and Ankle

Foot and ankle injuries due to sports are the most common impairments, affecting 5.3 million people every year. The foot is made up of 26 small bones and 33 joints that work together to provide cushion and stability for the body. These bones are connected by tendons and ligaments to the ankle, and the foot and ankle together help a person to walk, run, and participate in many forms of exercise. Since a person’s feet can support a million pounds of pressure during exercise, and feet are able to absorb one and a half times a person’s body weight just while walking, sports involving running and jumping place a lot of pressure on the feet. The ankle bones are ends of the shinbones, called the tibia and fibula.

Ankle fractures occur with breaking the bottom of these bones. Fractures must be diagnosed by x-ray, and cause extreme pain, and an inability to walk. Ankle sprains are the overstretching of the ligaments attaching the ankle to the foot, which causes pain, limited mobility, and swelling at the site. Most of these injuries occur from playing sports on an uneven surface, overstepping, or rolling of the ankle inward or outward. 75% of musculoskeletal injuries are ankle sprains. The Achilles tendon can tolerate one ton of pressure on the foot. Achilles tendonitis happens from overuse, and causes inflammation at the site, pain, and difficulty walking. 65% of all overuse injuries are Achilles tendonitis. Shin splints are pain along the bone of the shin, usually with walking. Shin splints are due to overuse of the tendons around the foot and ankle, causing pain.

To avoid injuries to the foot and ankle, wear proper shoes with good cushioning in the sole and thick tread on the outside. Poorly fitting shoes, or those that have worn heels or tread are prone to cause more injuries. Try to practice activities on a firm, even surface, and stretch before and after exercising. Treatment of injuries involves putting ice on the area, wrapping it for stability, and rest from walking on the foot or ankle. Treatment from a doctor with casting or surgery may be necessary if the injury is severe.

The Knee

The knee is the most common site of orthopedic surgery, as the prominence of the knee makes it vulnerable in sports. The knee is a joint that is a connection between the top of the shinbones and the bottom of the thighbone. These bones are surrounded by cartilage and connected by ligaments and tendons of the knee. The structure is covered by the patella, also called the kneecap.

The knee bends during exercise, but injuries occur from the knee flexing in a direction that it is not intended for, such as twisting to the side or bending backward. This can cause stress and tears on the tendons, ligaments and cartilage of the knee. A direct blow to the patella can also injure the ligaments behind it, or even fracture the patella itself. The ACL is the anterior cruciate ligament, and it is found behind the patella. Injuries to the ACL can result from jumping and landing incorrectly, causing strain or tear to the ligament. The PCL is the posterior cruciate ligament, located directly behind the ACL. An injury to the PCL comes from taking a blunt hit to the front of the knee. The MCL is the medial collateral ligament and is found at the back of the knee. Injuries to this site are from a hit to the back or side of the knee, usually from contact sports. A type of cartilage that is found at the end of the leg bones in the knee is called the meniscus. The meniscus tears with injuries that occur from direct blows to the knee, causing it to twist.

Treatment of knee injuries includes resting the knee and avoiding pressure or walking on it, putting ice on it, wrapping the knee for stability, and elevating the leg. Surgery may be necessary by an orthopedic surgeon if the injury is severe or includes a fracture of the patella.

The Shoulder

Shoulder injuries account for more than 7 million physician visits every year. Shoulder injuries occur because of repetitive motions; and several sports such as swimming, tennis, and racquetball can cause injury due to use of the arm in a repetitive way while playing. Pain in the shoulder while doing the movement can be a warning sign of an impending injury. A popping sound when moving or sudden stiffness can mean the shoulder joints are out of alignment and may need correction.

The shoulder is made up of the top of the arm bone and the collarbone, connecting with ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Rotator cuffs are prominent ligaments in the shoulder. When the rotator cuff is injured due to strain or tear, a person cannot lift their arm higher than a certain point. Usually surgery is indicated for treatment of this type of injury. Other common types of shoulder injuries are instability injuries, where the shoulder bones move out of place and become dislocated. Sometimes instability injuries correct themselves and sometimes the shoulder needs to be realigned. Other shoulder injuries are impingement injuries, which is when the shoulder muscles pinch against the bone, causing pain and inflammation.

Treatment for most shoulder injuries includes pain medication and rest of the shoulder. Continued use of repetitive exercise movements make shoulder injuries worse and should be avoided.

Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains are injuries that occur to the tendons and ligaments in the body. A tendon is a fibrous substance that attaches muscles and tissues to bones. A ligament is a tissue that connects bone to bone. Both tendons and ligaments are found everywhere in the body. Sprains occur when there is overstretching or tearing of ligaments. This happens most commonly in contact sports such as football; and by jumping and landing incorrectly, such as in a game of basketball. Strains are injuries to tendons, and most commonly occur due to overusing muscles, not taking rest breaks, and doing repetitive motions sports over long periods of time.

Sprains and strains can be prevented by wearing protective equipment in contact sports, taking frequent rest breaks when needed, and stretching adequately.

Stress Fractures

Stress fractures occur when an athlete uses a body part too much and it becomes weak. Most stress fractures happen in the lower legs and feet and when this occurs, the body part is unable to hold weight. A stress fracture appears as a small crack in the bone from weakness. Women are more susceptible to stress fractures than men. Common sports involved include running, tennis, and basketball; all of which put a lot of pressure on the foot and ankle.

Treatment of stress fractures includes rest of the body part for several weeks for it to heal completely. Restarting activities if the stress fracture is not fully healed can cause it to be injured again.

Playing Safe

Sports injuries can be very disabling to players, limiting time spent in activity because of the need for recovery. As more children are becoming involved in sports, injuries can occur that can affect them for years to come. Broken bones can affect the growth plates of children, which in turn can slow growth of the bone. Head injuries can cause permanent brain damage that will affect a person for a lifetime. Three to four children a year die from injuries related to baseball games when they received an injury to the head. Head and neck injuries are very common in sports such as football, skiing, and hockey, affecting over 200,000 people last year. Orthopedic injuries occur most commonly in sports such as basketball, gymnastics, and soccer. Wearing protective equipment is mandatory for athletes to prevent injury.

Following the rules, taking rest breaks, and listening to the body when it has been pushed too far can prevent injuries from happening. Seeking prompt medical attention is necessary when an injury does occur. If a person is careful and takes care of their body, fewer injuries will happen and sports can continue to be enjoyed as they were meant to be.



  • Hoop Hurts: Help for common basketball injuries.