We are often told of the benefits of staying active, and encouraged to run, walk, cycle and swim to stay healthy, or even get active by joining a gym or a sporting team. But anyone who is physically active even in a low-key kind of way is also more susceptible to injuries as a result. In fact, sports facilities and sports grounds are the second most common location for injuries occurring in leisure time. Most sport-related injuries are relatively minor, but some can pose bigger problems, especially if left untreated. So let’s have a look at the most common sporting injuries, and what you can do about them.
The majority of sporting injuries are bruises, also known as contusions. Generally caused by impact with external blunt objects, like sports equipment, other players or even the ground, bruises can occur from just about any impact, and sometimes even by sudden changes in direction which can twist muscles and cause bruising. There are several types of bruises, the most obvious are usually the least damaging and fastest to heal.
These bruises are most obvious as they are near the surface of the skin. Burst blood vessels give the bruise site reddish or purple colouration. As the body begins to break down the blood and damaged tissue it can turn brownish or yellow before fading completely. In most cases the pain is temporary, though contact with the bruise can reveal some sensitivity as it heals.
Treatment for bruising
The main point with bruises is that while there is a small amount of damage, it is contained internally. Over time the blood gets broken down by the body and the bruise fades, but in the short term, the RICE formula is the most common first aid:
Rest – stop using the affect limb or loosen clothing on the area
Ice – Cold compress applied directly to the bruise will reduce blood flow and swelling
Compression – Compression bandages will also help reduce swelling and further damage
Elevation – reduce blood flow by raising the affected area as high as comfortable
These “surface” bruises clear up by themselves after a few days generally, and physical activity should be avoided until the injured area feels comfortable to use, then reintroduced slowly. Consult a doctor for specific advice.
Intra and inter-muscular bruises
Sometimes bruising may occur within or between muscle tissue, and no external signs of the broken blood vessels are visible. This will still cause considerable pain, especially when moving the affected muscles, and could be mistaken for a sprain or strain. First aid treatments are the RICE method, followed by medical attention just to check out the true state of the injury.
Deep tissue bruising can occur as a result of impact, and even through a violent, twisting motion. In some cases the bone itself may be damaged, or swelling may occur without fracturing the bone. These types of bruises should be treated in the same way as other bruising, and usually heal on their own, though medical attention is important to avoid possible complications. Bone bruises can be more serious when they affect a very small area, which indicates a concentrated force acting on the bone. Therefore a localised, intense pain requires closer attention than a broad dull pain. X-rays may be necessary to ensure no fractures have occurred.
In very physical sports, dislocations may occur. This is when a bone becomes disconnected from its usual seat in a joint, and may immobilise the affected limb altogether. In adults, this is most common in the shoulder joint, and in children the elbow is more likely. Fingers, hips and knees are also common joints to become dislocated if subjected to sufficient force. It can be very alarming for the injured person, as their limb may seem to be pointing the wrong way, and movement will be incredibly painful. Immediate treatment is required for dislocations.
Treatment for dislocation
It may be tempting to “pop” the affected joint back in, but this is not advised. The dislocated joint should be iced as soon as possible to reduce swelling and fluid build-up, and the joint and limb immobilised by using a split. Medical attention should be sought as soon as possible to avoid damaging the limb or joint any further. Rest is required immediately following a dislocation until medical advice approves use again. Dislocations may become more frequent in some cases after an initial incident due to damage in the joint or bone, preventing them from connecting properly. Anyone who has had a dislocation should pay special attention to that joint whenever they undertake activities that could result in further dislocations. Taping by a physiotherapist prior to a sporting event may be the smartest way to avoid future dislocations – seek professional advice to see what precautions are appropriate for your case.
Sprains and strains
Right up there with bruising, sprains and strains make up about two thirds of all sports-related injuries. While the pain may be indistinguishable to most of us, there is a difference: Sprains are when ligaments are stretched or torn, while strains are related to muscles or tendons tearing.
These are usually brought on by movement of the body in ways it is not used to moving, or by sudden changes of direction, especially of knees and ankles while running. They can also be caused by falling and knocking bones out of place, or by landing badly while running or jumping (especially on ankles, knees and feet) in a way that puts sudden pressure on bones and joints.
On the other hand, strains are more likely to be caused by muscle stress, for example when lifting something heavy, like another person. Other stresses can be the result of over-use of muscles, either before they are fully recovered from a previous injury, or when embarking on a new exercise program or playing a new sport without the proper training.
Treatment for sprains and strains
As with bruises, first aid is the same RICE procedure, however in some cases further medical attention and even surgery may be required to repair seriously damaged tissue. Getting back into action may take a little longer than for a simple bruise, as tissues should be fully repaired before continuing with major physical activity. Start running around too soon on a torn ligament or tendon and you risk doing further, sometimes permanent, damage.
Bleeding and bone fractures
In more serious cases, generally as a result of a fall or a collision, people can break bones or have external bleeding. The signs of bleeding are obvious, though fractured bones may be harder to spot unless quite severe. When a cracked bone forms a main part of an arm or leg, use of the limb will very likely cause excessive pain. But many smaller bones in the wrists, ankles, hands and feet can be fractured or broken without causing excessive pain, and may be mistaken for bruising. Early treatment is required in this case to optimise healing, so even moderate pain should be a cause for seeking medical attention.
Treatment for bleeds and breaks
In both cases, the patient should be kept as calm and still as possible. In the case of bleeding, gloves may be required in order to prevent transmission of disease either from or to the patient. Check the wound for foreign objects which may have caused the cut and continue to damage the tissue, though you should never attempt to dislodge an object that could have severed a blood vessel unless specifically directed to by a qualified professional. The reason for this is that a piece of the object may break away and damage the heart, lungs or brain. Shallow matter, like glass or plastic that is visible on the surface, can be carefully removed if the surrounding damage is minimal.
If no foreign objects are present, compress the wound to slow down the blood flow. Keeping the compress in place, carefully apply a bandage around the wound as best as possible. The wound should also be raised above the level of the heart whenever possible to reduce bleeding.
With potentially broken bones, the limb should be immobilised using splints of whatever is available – even rolled up newspapers are better than nothing. But in both cases, professional medical attention is required as soon as possible.
In many cases, an injury may be a combination of factors. A single impact could result in bruising, fractures and sprains or strains. But overdoing it can cause problems on its own. The relatively common complaint of shin splints can have a number of causes, but appears as the same symptoms. This is usually found in activities that require a lot of running, and presents as pain along the shin bones. They can be caused by a number of different injuries, or a combination of them. For example, a poor running technique such as overpronation, which puts strain on tendons in the foot and can cause tearing. It can also be caused by stress fractures in the shin bones caused by running on hard surfaces, or even by muscle strain from uneven surfaces.
Treatment for compound injuries
Obviously treatment for multiple injuries depends on their individual nature. Usually when the source of pain can’t be directly identified, it’s best to consult a doctor to examine the potential cause. It is also important not to further injure yourself by continuing your normal sporting activities before seeing someone. In the case of shin splints, rest will usually clear up the problem, even in the case of stress fractures. In the meantime, less jarring exercise such as swimming or cycling may be substituted for running and tackling until the injury heals.
The final word
Sports injuries can slow us down, and it can be hard leaving enough time to fully recover before we want to get back out there and stay active. But it is very important to work with your doctor and allied health care professionals when recovering to ensure we don’t make our injuries worse than they need to be. If you regularly participate in sporting activities, you’ll know that the physiotherapist can be your best friend. Many health insurance providers give rebates on physiotherapy and related professional care, so ensure you’re comprehensively covered by comparing the best of what the market has to offer. Take care of that delicate machine you drive and get the best out of it every day.
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