Sports Medicine: Preventing & Recovering from Injury

MARCH 1, 2016

Sports Medicine is the medical field that deals with treating and preventing injuries related to sports and physical activity. Athletes, ranging from grade school through professional leagues, rely on Sports Medicine doctors to help them both recover from injury and avoid new injuries. While some injuries Sports Medicine physicians deal with are predominately linked to athletics, some are also common in the non-athlete population. So whether you’re a professional baseball player or someone who has never played a day of sports in her life, the work Sports Medicine physicians do is relevant to you.

“The first thing to know about injuries, whether they occur on the field of play or in the home or in the workplace, is that many of them are preventable,” says Dr. Steve Meyers, a Sports Medicine doctor at the Texas Health Care Bone and Joint Clinic in Fort Worth. “Injuries often occur in sports and exercise due to insufficient training or improper form and technique – the same is true at home or at work.”

Here are some of the common injuries that Sports Medicine physicians see and how they can be treated and prevented:

Shoulder Injuries

Shoulder injuries often result from activities which involve repetitive and frequent overhead motion: swimming, tennis, pitching and weightlifting all fall in this category. But just as with other common sports injuries, mundane tasks such as lifting boxes up into the attic, painting a ceiling or wall or trimming hedges can cause strain and injury to the shoulder.

One of the most common types of shoulder injury is to the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that holds the bones of the shoulder together. The rotator cuff is the part of the shoulder that enables us to lift our arms overhead.

“If you feel pain or stiffness in your shoulder or you are unable to perform your usual daily activities due to shoulder discomfort, you should see a sports medicine or orthopedic specialist,” says Dr. Joseph Milne, an Orthopedic Surgeon.

Sometimes, shoulder injuries can heal through rest, restricting movement of the shoulder and strengthening exercises. Other times, an injury may necessitate injections or surgery.

Knee Injuries

There are several types of knee injuries associated with sports. A sprain of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) is one of the most common and can occur when a person stops or changes direction suddenly, slows down when running or lands the wrong way after a jump. That’s why we often hear about ACL injuries in sports such as football, basketball and soccer.

The ACL is found on the inside of the knee and together with the Posterior Cruciate Ligament, controls the back and forth motion of the knee. An ACL injury is a sprain and can range from a Grade 1 sprain, in which the ligament is stretched but not torn, to a Grade 2 sprain in which the ligament is partially torn, to Grade 3 in which the ligament is completely torn in two.

ACL sprains can only be completely healed through surgery, although if the sprain is not too severe and the person is elderly and not very active, a non-surgical solution of restricting activity along with physical therapy may be an option.

In most cases, a torn ACL cannot simply be stitched back together. The surgeon must replace the damaged ligament with a graft – usually part of a tendon from another part of the body – that serves as the infrastructure for the ligament to regrow on. Because the ligament must be given time to completely regrow, recovery from ACL surgery generally takes six months.

The knee also has ligaments that run on the outside of the knee joint, known as collateral ligaments. These ligaments control the sideways motion of the knee and help to brace it. The Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) can be torn when the knee is pushed sideways. Unlike the ACL, however, an MCL sprain rarely requires surgery and can be healed through a brace that restricts movement, as well as physical therapy.

Meniscus tears are another common knee injury. The meniscus refers to the cartilage in the knee between the thighbone and shinbone. Meniscus tears are a common sports injury and can sometimes occur at the same time as an ACL injury. Absent an ACL injury, a meniscus tear is characterized by pain and stiffness and swelling that comes on over a period of a few days. Depending upon the severity and location of the tear, sometimes a meniscus injury does not require surgery and can be treated through a combination of rest, ice packs, a compression bandage and elevation of the leg.

Ankle Sprains

Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries affecting athletes and non-athletes alike. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, 25,000 people a day suffer an ankle sprain. A sprain occurs when the ligaments in the ankle are stretched beyond their capability. As with the ligaments in the knee, some sprains are so severe they result in the tearing of the ligament.

Ankle sprains take place when the foot rolls or twists in an abnormal way – this can happen in a number of different sports, but also in daily activities such as walking down stairs or stepping off of a curb.

“The keys to reducing risk of an ankle sprain is maintaining good balance control, avoiding slick surfaces, wearing shoes that provide good support and warming up before exercising,” says Orthopedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine physician, Dr. Donald Dolce.

Tennis Elbow

One of the most common elbow ailments is known as Tennis Elbow, a condition that results from overuse of the elbow joint. As the name suggests, sports such as tennis and racquetball can lead to the onset of tennis elbow, but there are also a number of non-sports activities and professions that have been associated with the injury. In fact, most cases of Tennis Elbow have nothing to do with the sport and are caused by everyday activities. People whose jobs require them to make frequent and repeated use of the forearm, such as plumbers, cooks, painters, and carpenters have all been known to get tennis elbow.

Tennis elbow occurs when muscles in the forearm become weakened due to overuse, resulting in instability in the arm and leading to small tears in the tendon that connects the forearm muscles. Pain, a burning sensation in the elbow and inability to grip objects are the resulting symptoms.

“Tennis elbow can be quite painful, but the good news is that the vast majority of cases can be treated with rest, physical therapy, and other non-surgical treatments,” says Dr. Tracy Munford, a surgeon and Orthopedic Sports Medicine physician. “We generally only consider surgery in the event that a patient has not responded to other treatments after several months.”

Strained Muscles

Strained or pulled muscles, especially in the legs, are common sports injuries.

The hamstring is the group of three muscles found in the back of the thigh. A pulled hamstring is associated with a number of sports, in addition to running and dancing. A hamstring pull is often characterized by a sudden pain in the thigh, followed by swelling and weakness in the muscle. Generally, hamstring injuries can be treated through rest, ice packs and use of crutches in order to keep weight off of the injured leg.

A pulled groin muscle—the muscle on the inside of the thigh – is another common injury. This is an injury often associated with baseball, football, soccer and hockey, as it can result from pushing off in a sideways motion. As with the hamstring, the best remedy is usually rest and ice packs.

Back Injuries

A back injury can be painful and debilitating, limiting a person’s mobility. Back injuries are an example of an injury that can just as easily be caused by a non-sports event as it can be by something that happened on the field or in the weight room.

For example, an athlete who is lifting weights in the gym knows that when doing a deadlift, he bends his knees, tightens his core muscles and lifts using the powerful leg muscles, not his back. And of course, if he’s training properly, he won’t try to lift more weight or complete more repetitions than his body can handle. A person who is lifting a heavy object at home or at work needs to take the same approach.

“I have seen patients who were trying to move a box, suitcase or piece of furniture and they simply misjudged how heavy the object was or put the lift on the back instead of the legs and suffered a back injury,” says Dr. James Brezina, an Orthopedic Back Surgeon. “Improper lifting can strain muscles, tear ligaments or damage the disks in the back, so lifting the right way is one of the most important things someone can do to prevent injury, whether they are an athlete or not.”

Preventing Injury On and Off the Field

There are a number of things we can do to lessen our risk of these types of injuries, according to Dr. Nathan Lesley, an Orthopedic Hand Surgeon. “Many of the injuries we see are a result of overuse of a muscle or joint. If you’re playing tennis and your elbow is starting to get sore, your body is telling you that it needs a break in order to heal. Additionally, inadequate stretching and not warming up before exercise leads to muscle strains.”

“If you’re starting an exercise program and have been inactive for a while, or if you’re picking up a new sport, it’s really important to ease into it,” adds Dr. Munford. “That means gradually work your way up in terms of weight lifted, minutes played, distance traveled, etc. So many sports injuries occur simply because someone is trying to do too much, too fast. These are the easiest kinds of injuries to prevent, so listen to your body and use good judgment.”

This article contains material sourced from:

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Mayo Clinic

The National Institutes of Health

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