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April 22, 2024

Whether you’re in it to win it, get in shape, stay in shape, or just have fun, participating in sports (at any level) can do wonders for your health — physically, mentally, and socially. It doesn’t matter how competitive you are. Sports injuries can happen to the best of us, even when we think we’re playing it safe. Let’s talk about common sports injuries and injury prevention and recovery.

Fast facts about sports injuries

More than 8 million sports injuries occur each year.1 Sports injuries can happen suddenly through a fall, bump, blow, or twist. They call that an acute sports injury.  

Sports injuries can also form over time from overuse of a muscle, joint, tendon, or ligament or through poor form (like a bad tennis serve) that puts a strain on the body. This strain is called a “microtrauma” (a small injury to a bone, muscle, tendon, or ligament). Microtraumas can turn into major sports injuries if they’re not addressed (especially with rest). 

Most common sports injuries 

The most common sports injuries affect our musculoskeletal (muscle, tendon, ligament, bone, and tissue) system. We count on our musculoskeletal system for stability and all kinds of physical activity. Sprains and strains are the most common sports injuries across the board, accounting for about 40% of all types of sports injuries.2 

A sprain is a stretch or tear of ligament. 
A strain is the stretch or tear of muscle or tendon. 

There are many ways sports injury strain can happen. If you’ve dealt with tennis, golfer’s, or baseball elbow or pulled a groin, hamstring, hip flexor, or lumbar muscle, you can relate to the pain of a strain. Ankles, knees, and thumbs are common spots for a sports injury sprain.

Other common sports injuries include:3

Achilles tendon rupture — Overstretching the Achilles tendon can cause it to tear (rupture) completely or partially. This sports injury is often followed by a pop sound and sharp pain in the back of the ankle/lower leg, making it hard to walk.
ACL tear (or strain) — ACL stands for the anterior cruciate ligament, which stabilizes the knee. ACL sports injuries often come from sudden stops or changes in direction, jumping, and landing.
Broken bones/stress fractures — Less severe than bone breaks (or fractures) stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone, usually from overuse sports injuries. 
Cartilage tear — Cartilage is a tough, flexible tissue and a main component of joints. (There’s cartilage in the nose, ears, and larynx, too.) Sports and overuse physical activity can put wear and tear on cartilage. 
Concussion — The most common, least serious head injury, concussions may include headache, dizziness, short-term memory loss, and even possible loss of consciousness. Anyone who may have a concussion should be watched very closely.
Dislocation — The separation of two bones at the joint, dislocation sports injuries are common in the shoulder and finger. They can happen at the ankle, elbow, hip, and knee, too.
Shin splints — A common overuse injury (especially for runners), a shin splint is inflammation of the muscle, tendon, and connective tissue around your shin bone (tibia). 
Tendinitis — Tendons connect bone to muscle. When a tendon is inflamed — often through overuse of the same movements, like throwing or swinging — that’s tendinitis. It’s a common sports injury in baseball, golf, skiing, and tennis.
Rotator cuff tear — Four muscles working together, the rotator cuff lets your shoulder move the way it’s supposed to. A tear in any of the muscles makes raising or rotating your arm painful and difficult.

Sports injury risk factors

Sometimes accidents happen. When it comes to sports injury prevention, always bring your A game.

Sports injuries can happen simply by:

  • Using poor technique (like not being “spotted” when lifting weights)
  • Overuse and overtraining 
  • Pushing yourself too hard or too fast
  • Not wearing supportive shoes
  • Wearing ill-fitting equipment
  • Ignoring a nagging pain or old injury
  • Working out or playing sports when tired, dehydrated, or medicated

Even if it’s a physical activity you’ve loved since you were a kid (like cycling, running, or skiing), too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Especially for your knees. 

One of the most common sports injuries among cyclists, runners, and skiers is patellofemoral pain syndrome (or PFP syndrome), which is pain in and around the kneecap (patella) caused by overuse (repetitive bending and straightening of the knee). While it sounds serious, PFP syndrome — which is more common in women — is generally treated with ice, pain relievers, physical therapy, and strength training.

Sports injury prevention: playing it safe

Playing it safe doesn’t mean giving anything less than your best. Even if you’re an amateur, think like a pro when it comes to sports injury prevention.

Among the ways you can prevent sports injuries:

  • Warm up — maybe jog in place, take a quick/brisk walk, go for a spin on the stationary bike, or do some thorough slow, sustained stretches
  • Mix it up — cross train to improve your overall fitness and help prevent sports injury
  • Learn proper technique — a personal trainer or coach can help
  • Have proper gear — supportive shoes and protective gear (mouth guards/helmets/eyewear) are worth every penny to avoid sports injury
  • Drink plenty of water before, during, and after physical activity
  • Cool down after strenuous exercise (again, maybe walk a bit and do some gentle, sustained stretching)
  • Resume physical activity slowly if you haven’t “played hard” in a long time or if you’ve had a sports injury 

No sport can guarantee zero chance of injury, but you can lower your risk of injury by picking a low-contact sport. Even a limited-contact sport like ultimate or extreme frisbee calls for endurance, lots of stop-and-go maneuvers, and twists, turns, and lunges on the field. Knee and ankle sprains and strains ultimately top the list of common sports injuries among those who play ultimate frisbee.

Talk with your doc

Along with keeping your regular annual checkup, it’s a good idea (especially if you’re older and are jumping into a sport) to talk with your doc about your physical activity routine. 

These days, those plans may include picking up pickleball — America’s fastest-growing sport. Not so long ago, it seemed only seniors were having a ball on the pickleball court. Now, folks of all ages are getting into the swing. Pickleball is easy to learn and generally easy on the body (especially if you’re young and in good condition). Some see pickleball as a low-key, highly social outing. Others view it as a highly competitive sport. Either way, the more people playing pickleball, the more pickleball sports injuries. 

Pickleball may be a low-impact sport, but there are still lots of quick stops and starts, lunges, and side-to-side slides involved. The older you get, the harder that can be, especially for those not in the best condition. Sports injuries among pickleball players (mainly seniors) range from calf strains and Achilles tendonitis to partial and complete ruptures of the Achilles tendon, plantar fasciitis, and foot and ankle sprain or fracture. Given a pickleball can travel 40 mph, you have to be on the ball. Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from sports injury.

Sports injury treatment

In the wide world of sports, sports injuries vary greatly. Some require a trip to the doctor or ER. Others just leave you with a bruise and bruised ego. To treat most minor sports injuries, doctors recommend RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation).4 

Listen to your body. If you need to take a timeout, do it. Just don’t play through the pain of a sports injury. Doing so can turn a minor sports injury into a chronic sports injury.

Get medical attention if:

  • You’re feeling sharp, intense pain 
  • You’re feeling dizzy or having trouble focusing (possible concussion)
  • You’re having trouble breathing (possible heart condition)
  • You notice serious swelling or can’t stop a bleed
  • You can’t bend or put weight on it (toe, finger, arm, leg)

Here's the good news. You don’t have to wait for help with your sports injury. Just head to your nearby GuideWell Emergency Doctors. There, you’ll find a winning team of Board-Certified Emergency Medicine Doctors able to handle all kinds of emergencies and urgent medical issues — including sports injuries.


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