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Sports Injuries

If you're an athlete or active person, you know that injuries can happen. You can treat some minor sports injuries at home. But UPMC can also help.

From sprained ankles to jammed fingers, sports injuries can be painful. And you might not be sure what kind of care you need. While there are some true emergencies, you usually don't need to go to the ER for minor sports injuries.

We can treat many common sports injuries right in the office. We also are often able to see you on the same day for most injuries.

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What Is a Sports Injury?

Sports injuries are athletic injuries.

Sports injuries can be acute, like a twisted knee when playing basketball. Or a sports injury can happen over time because of overuse, like tendonitis from swinging a racket. These are chronic injuries.

Both types can be painful and frustrating.

Sports injuries are common. If you play sports or do active pursuits long enough, you'll probably injure yourself at some point.

What are the types of sports injuries?

Sports injuries range in severity, from serious fractures and torn tendons to bruises and minor sprains.

Common types of athletic injuries include:

  • Minor soft tissue injuries. These are small injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Think sprained wrists, twisted ankles, groin pulls, and low back strains. These injuries hurt if you use the limb or stretch, and can hurt at rest as well.
  • Severe soft tissue injuries. These are more severe injuries to tendons and ligaments, including bad sprains and tears. Think ACL tears, Achilles tendon ruptures, and rotator cuff tears. These painful injuries often need care quickly from a health provider.
  • Fractures. A fracture is a broken bone. You can break any bone, but fingers, toes, feet/ankles, wrists/arms, and collarbones are common athletic fractures. Broken bones need health care, though they don't always need casts.
  • Concussions. A concussion is a head injury that happens as a result of a blow or a fall. Concussions can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, vision problems, nausea, and balance issues. See a doctor right away for a suspected concussion.
  • Chronic (overuse) injuries. These injuries happen because of repeat motions. They even bear the names of the sports that often cause them, like tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, and runner's knee. Also in this group are shin splints, stress fractures (tiny cracks in the bone), tendonitis, and bursitis.

What causes sports injuries?

According to the National Safety Council Injury Facts data, the top 3 most common causes of sports injuries are:

  • Using exercise equipment.
  • Riding bikes.
  • Playing basketball.

But nearly any athletic pursuit can cause either an acute or chronic sports injury. However, chronic (overuse) injuries happen over time, with lots of the same movement over and over again.

Sports injury risk factors

Risk factors for sports injuries include:

  • Having a prior injury.
  • Using improper techniques.
  • Increasing exercise intensity or amount of exercise too quickly.
  • Playing the same sport all year (especially for school-aged athletes).
  • Not having the right gear, like shoes that don't fit right or have enough support.
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What Symptoms of Sports Injuries?

For acute athletic injuries, you may have:

  • Pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Bruising.
  • Trouble moving the injured limb/part of body.
  • Inability to put weight on the limb.

Chronic injuries can be more subtle and include symptoms like:

  • Pain while doing the activity.
  • Pain when sleeping, especially for shoulder injuries.
  • Loss of strength or mobility, like not being able to stretch or reach to full extent.
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How Do Diagnose Sports Injuries?

When you see a doctor for your injury, they will:

  • Examine the injury, including moving the limb around or pushing on different spots.
  • Ask how the injury happened.
  • Ask about your exercise habits and history. They'll want to know if you've recently switched sports, increased intensity, or made another change.

Based on the injury, they may order imaging tests, like an x-ray. Not all injuries require imaging. For example, minor soft tissue injuries often don't need an x-ray.

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How Do You Treat Sports Injuries?

If you only have minor pain, bruising, or swelling, you may be able to treat your injury at home.

You can use the RICE method:

  • Rest. Rest from the activity that caused the injury.
  • Ice. Use ice or cold packs for 20 minutes at a time for the first 48 hours. Do this several times a day (15 minutes every 1 to 3 hours) to help reduce swelling.
  • Compression. Use a sports wrap or bandage, and wrap it tightly (it should still be comfortable). This helps prevent swelling.
  • Elevation. Keep the injury above the level of your heart. This also helps decrease swelling.

You can also take ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain and swelling.

When should I call the doctor for a sports injury?

For obvious fractures (like a limb that hurts badly and doesn't look right), you'll need emergency care. You'll also need emergency care if you have a concussion.

For injuries that likely aren't fractures, call the doctor to make an appointment if you have:

  • Extreme swelling.
  • Severe pain, especially pain that doesn't respond to over-the-counter pain medicine.
  • Pain that doesn't improve after 7 to 10 days.
  • Pain that seems to get worse with activity (for chronic injuries).

Treatments for more severe athletic injuries

For more severe injuries, or sporting injuries that don't improve with RICE, you may need:

  • Immobilization. Immobilization means limiting motion. Casts, braces, slings, and walking boots are all types of immobilization. Limiting movement helps muscles, tissues, and bones start to heal.
  • Physical therapy. PT can be helpful for overuse injuries. Working with a physical therapist can help you strengthen muscles around the injury. You can also learn stretches and exercises to help you rehab the injury.
  • Surgery. Surgery can repair torn tissues or realign severely broken bones. However, most sports injuries will not require surgery.
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Last reviewed by Susan Marchezak, CRNP on 2024-05-14.