Breaks, tears and strains: Preventing sports injuries

You’ve heard about the many health benefits of physical activity. On top of improving your fitness, exercising and playing sports can also help boost self-esteem, coordination and self-discipline — particularly for children.

But these benefits can come at a price: sports injuries. Fortunately, you can prevent many sports injuries by taking some simple precautions.

Contact sports like football put athletes at obvious risk. Of special concern are severe injuries to the neck, spinal cord and, for young athletes, growth plates — the areas of developing cartilage where bone growth occurs.

“The highest rates of injuries occur in sports that involve contacts and collisions,” says Dr Lynne Haverkos, a pediatrician at NIH. “Head injuries are the most serious of the sports-related injuries, and although fatal head injuries are rare, they are the leading cause of death from a sports-related injury.” Haverkos says that about 21% of traumatic brain injuries in kids are related to sports and recreational activities. Many of those are bicycling, skateboarding and skating injuries.

Breaks, tears and strains: Preventing sports injuriesThat’s why the first thing you need to do is make sure you’re using the right helmet or other protective gear for your sport. And be sure it fits properly.

But virtually any part of your body can be injured during sports or exercise. Many injuries involve the musculoskeletal system: muscles, bones and associated tissues like cartilage. “Sprains and strains are among the most common injuries people get,” Haverkos says, adding, “Knees, ankles and wrists are commonly injured joints.”

Equipment can play a role in these types of injuries as well. From shoes to bicycles to ice skates, whatever your sport, good equipment that fits your body properly can help you prevent all kinds of problems.

A variety of common sports injuries

Different people tend to get different types of injuries. The bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments of young athletes, for example, are still growing and more prone to injury. Their growth plates are weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons.

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Children who are just learning a sport are at a higher risk for injury. They may be more prone to falls or collisions because their bodies aren’t trained to move a certain way. If your child participates in sports, look for programs with certified athletic trainers. If you’re supervising a sport, make sure children know and follow the rules of the game and learn proper form. Learning to stroke properly from a swimming coach, for example, can help prevent shoulder problems.

Make sure equipment fits properly, and that the kids are using it safely. And provide a safe environment. A poorly-maintained playing field or unsecured soccer goal can cause serious injury.

Haverkos says that, ideally, children should be grouped according to skill level and size, not by age. If that’s not possible, design the activities to accommodate children with varying skill levels. When 2 children of the same age but different levels of physical maturity are pitted against each other, the physically immature child is more likely to get injured.

One mistake parents often make is pushing kids into sports or competition levels that they’re not prepared for, Haverkos says. “Competition should be less important than having fun and socializing,” she explains. “Sports provide valuable ways to be physically active, learn skills, socialize and have fun.”

Even adults get hurt during sports

Kids aren’t the only ones who get sports injuries. More adults than ever are participating in sports. Less agile and resilient than they once were, adults can be more prone to injury than they think.

You’re more likely to hurt yourself if you haven’t been keeping fit. People who take the winter off and start rigorous activity as soon as the weather improves are prone to injury. If you try to pack a week’s worth of activity into a day or 2 on the weekend, you’re also at risk.

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“It’s the sudden changes that really get you, the sudden jumps in activity,” says Dr Martha Murray of Children’s Hospital, Boston.

If you’ve been off for a while, don’t try to do too much at first. “You should think about any sports participation as something you need to prepare for,” Murray says. Whatever your age and whatever level of sport you do, it’s important to train your muscles and joints so they have adequate strength, endurance and flexibility. “Start slow and then build up so you are ready when the activity starts,” she says.

Simple ways to avoid injuries

Learning to listen to your body will help you avoid injury. “If you have pain when doing an activity, stop,” Murray advises.

Parents and coaches should never push a child to play with pain. “If you push on through mild injuries, you can aggravate them and make them worse,” Haverkos says.

You can hurt yourself by overdoing it even if you don’t have pain. “If you’re fine during the activity, but have soreness that night and feel fine the next day,” Murray says, “that’s often part of your body getting used to the new activity. But if you’re sore for 3 days, you’ve done too much.”

Doing different sports on different days using different muscle groups — called cross-training — can also help prevent injury. “Different sports may have wear and tear on different muscle groups,” Murray explains. “If you cross-train, that gives muscles and joints a chance to recover.” Strive for a total body mix of cardiovascular, strength training and flexibility exercises.

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Warm-up exercises, such as stretching or light jogging, before an activity reduce the chance of muscle strain or other injury. And make sure to cool down. For example, after a race, be sure to walk or jog lightly for 5 minutes so your pulse slows down gradually. After a workout, when the body’s tissues are warmer and more flexible, is also the safest time to do stretching to work on your flexibility.

NIH is funding many research projects into repairing sports injuries. Other scientists are looking into why some people are more susceptible to injury than others. Female athletes, for example, have higher injury rates than men in many sports. Both Murray and Haverkos are excited about promising new research into safety training programs and other methods for preventing injuries in the first place.

Don’t let the prospect of getting injured scare you off, because we already know a lot about how to prevent injuries. And the benefits you can get from sports and exercise are too important to ignore.

Dealing with an injury

If you have severe pain, swelling or numbness, or can’t tolerate any weight on the injured area, contact your health care provider or go to an emergency room. It’s probably okay to treat less severe injuries at home — at least, at first. Follow the RICE method:

Rest. Give the injured area time to heal.

Ice. Apply an ice pack for up to 20 minutes at a time, 4-8 times a day.

Compression. Wrap the area with an elastic bandage.

Elevation. If possible, keep the injured area elevated above the level of the heart.

If you’re using RICE but the pain or other symptoms get worse, contact your health care provider.

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