Treating Sports Injuries
Games, Sets, Matches, Sprains & Strains
It’s not only back-to-school time, it’s back-to-school-sports time. And by now the action is in full swing. While we’re enjoying the thrill of competition, we hold our breath a little bit at the prospect of injuries. Fortunately, most are minor sprains and strains that a little TLC can take care of without a long stint on the sidelines, or the trainer’s table.
A sprain (such as the most common sports injury, the ankle sprain) is a stretching or tearing of ligaments that connect two bones together. Symptoms include:
• Feeling or hearing a “pop” in the joint
• Limited ability to move the affected joint
A strain, such as a pulled groin or hamstring, is a stretching or tearing of muscle or tendon (the fibrous tissue connecting muscles to bones). Strains come in two varieties: acute, which happens abruptly due to a sudden over-stretch; and chronic, which results from prolonged, repetitive movement of a muscle. Symptoms of a strain include:
• Muscle spasms
• Limited ability to move the affected muscle
Unfortunately, the main cause of sprain or strain is just bad luck — a misstep, a slip on a wet field or floor, or a collision with a teammate. But poor conditioning, fatigue, lack of proper preparation and ill-fitting or poorly maintained equipment (like footwear) can also play a role. So to reduce the risk of a sprain or strain:
• Always warm up to increase blood flow to muscles and improve range of motion.
• Do some simple stretches for 30–60 seconds after warming up.
• For long-term prevention, work to strengthen and condition the muscles around the joint. This is especially important for joints that have been previously injured.
• For legs, improve your balance. Take every opportunity to balance yourself on one foot (even during routine tasks like brushing your teeth) to help “train” the muscles in your ankles, knees and hips.
The good news is that most sprains and strains are simple to self-treat. Just remember the acronym, RICE:
• Rest: Avoid activities that cause pain or swelling, but not all physical activity. You want to maintain conditioning. If it’s an injured leg, keep working your upper body. If an arm, work your legs (on an exercise bike, for example). And start exercising the injured joint as soon as possible to prevent loss of flexibility and strength.
• Ice: Use an ice pack or ice water slush bath as soon as possible after the injury. Apply ice for 15-20 minutes every two to three hours for the first few days to reduce pain, swelling and inflammation.
• Compression: Wrap the joint with an elastic bandage to help stop swelling, beginning at the spot farthest from your heart. But not too tight! If pain increases, the area becomes numb or swelling begins below the wrapped area, loosen the bandage.
• Elevation: Especially at night, elevate the injury above heart level to allow gravity to gradually reduce swelling.
You may also use over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen (such as Advil® or Motrin®) and acetaminophen (such as Tylenol®).
After two days of RICE, it’s time to begin to use the injured joint or muscle. You should begin to see improvement — your joint can support more weight, for example, or you can move the muscle or joint with less pain.
When to see a doctor
On one hand, you don’t want to seek medical attention if you don’t have to. On the other, you want to make absolutely sure you’re not dealing with something more severe. Here’s what to look for that indicates it’s time to see a doctor:
• You can’t walk more than four steps without significant pain.
• You can’t move the affected joint at all.
• You have pain directly over the bones of an injured joint.
• You’re experiencing numbness in any part of the injured area.
If you’re having any of these symptoms, contact your primary care physician, or visit St. Clair Hospital’s Urgent Care at Village Square in Bethel Park (412.942.8800) or St. Clair Hospital’s Emergency Department at 1000 Bower Hill Road in Mt. Lebanon.
Fortunately, the odds are in your favor that this year will be sprain-and-strain-free. Best of luck on a great season!