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Sports injuries

NHS Direct Online Health Encyclopaedia


Exercise can be very beneficial to health. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and obesity, and organised sports are an excellent source of motivation and enjoyment.

However, sports can also be dangerous, especially if adequate warm-ups are not done and proper safety equipment is not used. Some sports also require supervision from a qualified professional, or someone who is able to administer first-aid. For some tips on how to begin exercising, see Exercise.

Whereas most people obtain sports injuries through accidents, professional and competitive athletes often develop overuse injuries. An overuse injury is usually a sprain, strain or fracture to part of the body that has been used repetitively. An example of this is a javelin thrower, who may be vulnerable to arm and shoulder injuries.

The most common sports injuries and their symptoms are:

Tennis elbow. Symptoms include swelling around the outer edge of the elbow (this is because the tendon is inflamed), tenderness around the elbow and pain during movement of the elbow. Tennis elbow is due to repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm and can be treated anti-inflammatory drugs, an elbow splint to support the arm or a cortisone injection.
Golfers elbow. This condition has similar symptoms to tennis elbow (above), with the difference that the swelling appears on the inside of the elbow due to the difference in arm movement during sport.
Joggers nipple. This term is used to describe dermatitis around the nipples and is due to constant chaffing of clothing against the nipple. Spreading Vaseline on the skin before running can prevent this occurring. Diluted hydrocortisone cream may help to reduce symptoms once the condition has developed.
Runners knee. This is swelling at the back of the kneecap (chondromalacia) and can cause a grating sensation in the knee. Runners knee is due to repeated impact through running on hard surfaces.
Blisters are caused by friction on soft skin. They are small swellings filled with serum, which comes from the blood. Blisters are a common minor injury for athletes who take part in prolonged sports, such as long-distance running or football. Rowers often develop blisters on the palms of their hands.
Sprains. A sprain is a stretch injury or tear to the ligament, which holds two or more bones together. It is characterised by pain, swelling, bruising and restriction of movement to the affected area. Sprains are very common injuries in many sports and can be treated by rest and anti-inflammatory medication if necessary.
Head injuries. Many athletes receive blows to the head during contact sports such as rugby, boxing, ice hockey, and football. This can cause concussion and even brain damage. Even if the knock is not severe enough to cause the skull to fracture, the brain bangs against the skull and can be damaged. A knock to the head can cause symptoms such as loss of consciousness, light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, and sickness. These are signs of concussion and will need medical treatment.
Tendonitis. This is an uncomfortable condition caused by overuse, strain or a tear in a tendon. Symptoms include swelling, redness, pain at the injured area, restricted movement of the area, and sometimes a change in appearance of the area such as a lump or visible change in position of an affected limb.
Injuries are most commonly caused by misuse of equipment, inadequate safety precautions, and insufficient warm-up exercises before taking part in sports.

Professional and competitive athletes are particularly at risk of injuries due to the intense nature of their training and the overuse of specific muscles.

Children are also more at risk of injury because they are still physically developing. The female shape changes significantly during puberty, the hips widen causing pressure on different parts of the legs and feet. Bones that are still growing during adolescence are vulnerable to traction injuries.

The repetitive and aggressive movements used in many sports can result in different types of injuries to different parts of the body, for example:

Athletics injuries

Runners are at risk of various muscle strains, particularly to the legs, lower back and lower half of the body. Ankle and ligament damage is also common, as well as Achilles tendon rupture and calf tendon tears. Long-term and professional runners are also at risk from overuse injuries such as Severs disease, Osgood Schlatters disease and stress fractures.

The sudden movement and intense power required by throwers can lead to injuries to the upper body limbs, usually the shoulder, elbows and wrists.

Jumping events can lead to stress injuries to the lower limbs and spine. Professional or competitive athletes who participate in jumping events are at risk of overuse injuries to the tendons and ligaments of the knees and Achilles.

Cricket injuries:

Head injuries are most common in cricket, due to fast bowling techniques, particularly in professional and competitive cricket. Bowlers are at greater risk of back and spine injuries including muscle strains and stress fractures. Knee ligament and cartilage damage is also a possibility.

Football injuries:

As football is increasingly becoming a contact sport, fractures, cuts and bruises are common injuries. Other injuries include boot stud injuries, damage to knee cartilage through repeated twisted action, and ankle sprains.

Gymnastics injuries:

Gymnasts can develop serious injuries if training is not properly supervised and safety equipment not used. Because the body is often contorted into new shapes, training is a particularly associated with picking up injuries.

Spinal injuries are the biggest risk to gymnasts. High impact landings from substantial heights can cause spinal injuries, as can repeated hypertension (back bends). This can lead to serious conditions such as spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis, which need surgical treatment.

Racquet sports injuries:

Racquet sports include badminton, tennis and squash. Injuries during racquet sports are often caused by players falling onto hard surfaces, and include cuts, bruising and fractures. Eye injuries are a specific risk, especially from racquet sports where the ball travels at high speed such as squash. Lower and upper body muscle strains are a risk, particularly for professional or competitive players.

Sprains and other damage to the muscles or ligaments can be treated with RICE therapy. This stands for:

Rest - two days (48 hours) of rest is recommended.
Ice - apply an ice pack to the area for between 10 and 30 minutes. The ice must not directly touch the skin as this may cause a cold burn.
Compression - compression bandages can be used to limit swelling and movement.
Elevation - raise the leg or arm to an elevated but comfortable height to reduce swelling.
After 48 hours, movement of the area should be attempted, and compression stopped. Heat and massage can be used to increase blood flow and physiotherapy may be required to restore full use of the arm or leg.

Pain relief (analgesics) such as paracetamol may be used in conjunction with anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and provide relief from the pain of sprains and fractures. Anti-inflammatory medicines include cortisone injections. These are local steroid injections which have a high success rate for reducing swelling and relieving the symptoms of muscle and ligament damage.

It is difficult for professional and competitive athletes to prevent injuries all the time, because of their intense and frequent training. But for most other people injuries are usually a result of accidents that could have been prevented.

The most important way to prevent sports injuries is to make sure that you have completed an adequate warm-up session before taking part in a sports activity. Starting with some gentle exercise such as walking or slow jogging, followed by some gentle stretches, will increase blood flow to the muscles and reduce the risk of muscle strains occurring. The territorial army website, Get Fitta, has some easy-to-follow stretches and warm-up exercises.

Try not to over-do it at first. If you havent had much exercise for a long time, strenuous activity could be more harmful than beneficial.

Be honest with yourself about what you can achieve, youll soon be able to increase your activity as you become fitter.

Drink plenty of water, especially when the weather is warm or when you are participating in sports that require endurance. Dehydration can reduce your physical and mental fitness.

Protective equipment is essential in some sports, particularly activities that involve person to person contact. Cricket boxes, shin pads, and gloves are all examples of equipment that should be worn to prevent injury.

Protective headwear is one of the most important pieces of sports equipment. Head guards and helmets protect the skull and the brain from injuries caused by knocks to the head during sports and greatly reduce the risk of serious head injuries.

© Queen's Printer and Controller of HMSO, 2005

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the controller of HMSO and the Queens Printer for Scotland.



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