The most common sports-related injuries primarily are overuse injuries. As the name implies, an overuse injury results from wear and tear on the body, particularly on joints subjected to repeated activity.
By far, the most common sport that leads to injury is running. “Running jars the body from the foot all the way up into the back,” says James Garrick, MD, director of the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco. He has seen more runners than any other recreational athletes in his clinic, followed by those who participate in dance (including aerobics), tennis, skiing, basketball, gymnastics, football, soccer and figure skating.
Certain types of injuries plague sports participants. Most of them, however, are minor. Knowing the early signs and what to do can help prevent them from becoming nagging problems.
Here’s a look, from head to toe, at the Top Ten sports injuries you’re most likely to face:
1 Muscle Pull
Probably the most common sports injury is a muscle pull, which can happen to almost any muscle in the body. No matter how diligently you warm up and stretch, or cool down and stretch, you may pull a muscle from overuse, fatigue or taking a fall. There is little you can be done to prevent a muscle pull except to stay limber and work your muscles regularly.
A muscle pulls when a sudden, severe force is applied to the muscle and the fibers are stretched beyond their capacity. If only some of the fibers tear, that is a muscle pull. If most of the fibers tear, that is a muscle tear.
2 Neck Pain
A pulled muscle or a muscle spasm in the neck can happen when a tennis player looks up to serve or hit an overhead smash. The pain is on one side of the neck, and the neck may be pulled over slightly to that side. It is particularly painful to turn the head in the direction of the pain. That is, if the pain is on the left side of the neck, the player can turn to the right, but not to the left.
Cyclists who use racing handlebars may also feel neck stiffness. With your back bent low over the handlebars, you have to tilt your neck up to see ahead. After a long ride, the neck muscles may tighten up and go into spasm from this awkward position.
3 Shoulder Impingement
The shoulder bones are held together by a group of muscles known as the rotator cuff muscles. These muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor) are responsible for the shoulder’s fine movements, such as throwing a ball. Because of the shoulder’s shallow socket and lack of ligament strength, any weakness of the small, rotator cuff muscles makes it easy for the head of the shoulder to slide around in the joint.
If the shoulder joint is continually stressed with the arm in an overhead position, as it is in softball, tennis, volleyball, swimming and weight training, the small rotator cuff muscles begin to stretch out. This allows the head of the joint to become loose within the shoulder socket. If the head of the shoulder is loose, when the arm is extended backwards over the shoulder the head will slide forward, catching the tendon of short head of the biceps between the ball and the socket. The same thing happens when the arm is raised to the side above parallel to the ground. The head will drop in the socket and the tendon of the long head of the biceps or the supraspinatus becomes impinged.
This impingement causes the tendons to become inflamed and painful. Tennis players feel the pain when they try to hit an overhead or serve. The same thing can happen to golfers in both the backswing and the follow-through when their shoulders are above parallel to the ground.
4 Lower Back Strain
Almost everyone who participates in sports experiences lower back strain at one time or another, usually from twisting awkwardly, lifting a heavy weight or doing some unpracticed activity. Virtually all lower back injuries are due to weak or tense muscles or muscle strain. Suddenly overloading muscles may pull or tear muscle fibers, sending the back muscles into spasm and causing pain.
Weightlifters, golfers, martial artists and tennis players are prone to back injuries because these sports involve unilateral motions. A golfer rotates the lumbar spine in only one direction, which is the equivalent of lifting weights with only one side of body. Martial artists generally have one dominant leg and kick with that one more than the other.
5 Tennis Elbow
Tennis elbow is really an inflammation of the muscles of the forearm and the tendon that connects the muscles to the bones in the elbow. These muscles bend the wrist backward and cause the wrist to turn the palm face up. When the muscles and tendon become inflamed from overuse, the pain is felt on the outside of the elbow (lateral epicondylitis).
A tennis player most often aggravates the elbow by hitting the ball late on the backhand side, straining the forearm muscles and tendon. Constantly turning the wrist to put more spin on the serve also can cause pain.
Golfers also suffer from tennis elbow, but on the non-dominant side, that is, a right-handed golfer will feel the pain in the left elbow. Pulling the club through the swing with the left wrist causes irritation in the left elbow.
A second type of tennis elbow is known as medial epicondylitis. This causes pain on the inside of the elbow. It is most often seen among golfers, baseball pitchers, tennis players who hit topspin forehands and weight lifters.
6 Runner’s Knee
The most common cause of knee pain is runner’s knee, known medically as chondromalacia patella. This is due to misalignment of the kneecap in its groove. The kneecap normally goes up or down in the groove as the knee flexes or straightens out. If the kneecap is misaligned, the kneecap pulls off to one side and rubs on the side of the groove. This causes both the cartilage on the side of the groove and the cartilage on the back of the kneecap to wear out. On occasion, fluid will build up and cause swelling in the knee.
Runners are not the only ones who develop runner’s knee. Pain can develop around the back of the kneecap or in the back of the knee after participating in any running sport.
7 Shin Splints
Shin splints are pains in the muscles near the shin bones. They can be caused by running or jumping on hard surfaces or simply overuse. They occur most often in people unaccustomed to training, although they can also plague experienced athletes who switch to lighter shoes, harder surfaces or more concentrated speed work.
The pain occurs on the inner side of the middle third of the shin bone. The muscle responsible for raising the arch of the foot attaches to the shin bone at that spot. When the arch collapses with each foot strike, it pulls on the tendon that comes from this muscle. With repeated stress, the arch begins to pull some of its muscle fibers loose from the shin bone. This causes small areas of bleeding around the lining of the bone, and pain.
If the irritated area is about the size of a 50-cent piece or smaller, or shin pain suddenly increases, you may have a stress fracture. The twisting of the tibia can cause the bone to crack. A stress fracture may not show up on an x-ray, and therefore a bone scan is indicated.
8 Ankle Sprain
The most common ankle sprain happens when the foot rolls to the outside and sprains the ligaments on the outside of the ankle. The outside of the ankle swells up and throbs, and may turn black and blue around the injury.
When a jogger steps gently off a curb and “twists” an ankle, this simply stretches the ligaments, with no real tearing, and is considered a mild sprain. When a tennis player lunges out over a poorly planted foot, partially tearing the fibers of the ligament, that is considered a moderate sprain. When a volleyball player jumps and lands on another player’s foot, twisting and forcing the ankle violently to the court, most or all of the fibers tear, and this is a severe sprain.
If weight-bearing is possible on the ankle after a sprain, the ankle probably is not broken. If you feel pain on the inside of the ankle, then it should be x-rayed to rule out a hair-line fracture.
9 Achilles Tendinitis
The Achilles tendon in the back of the ankle is the largest tendon in the body. It transfers the force of muscle contractions to lift the heel. Achilles tendinitis is an inflammation of the tendon, usually due to overuse, such as frequent jumping in basketball or volleyball. The most common cause is excessive pronation of the ankle and foot, which causes the Achilles tendon to pull off center.
The pain of a torn Achilles tendon feels like a gunshot in the leg. A partial tear is harder to spot. If the width of the injured Achilles tendon is smaller than the healthy one, or you feel intense pain when standing on your toes, see a doctor for treatment, and possibly surgery.
10 Arch Pain
The elastic covering on the sole of the foot–the plantar fascia–runs the length of the foot and holds up the arch. When this shock-absorbing pad becomes inflamed, this is called plantar fasciitis, causing a dull ache along the length of the arch.
The ache is due to over-stretching or partially tearing the arch pad. This happens most often to people with rigid, high arches. They feel the pain when they put weight on their foot or when pushing off for the next stride. Pain is particularly intense upon arising or after sitting for a long while.
Plantar fasciitis is particularly common among middle-aged people who have been sedentary and who suddenly increase their level of physical activity. Runners are most susceptible, but almost any sport that keeps the athlete standing can lead to arch pain. Inappropriately fitting shoes or a weight gain of 10 to 20 pounds can also contribute to the condition.