Sports injuries: Tips on how to heal

Whether you’re a marathon runner, a gym rat, a team sports player, or just a “weekend warrior,” chances are you’ve had a sports-related injury. It may have been as simple as a sore back or knee or as serious as a broken bone or torn ligament. Unfortunately, almost everyone who exercises regularly will suffer some kind of sports injury. According to Harvard Men’s Health Watch, a study of 6,313 adults who exercised regularly found that 21 percent developed an exercise-related injury over the course of a year.


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculo-skeletal and Skin Diseases find that the most common sports injuries are sprains and strains; knee injuries; swollen muscles; Achilles tendon injuries; shin splints; fractures; and dislocations.

Other common injuries include fasciitis, an inflammation of the tissue that covers many muscles and tendons and often caused by overuse (plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the sole of the foot frequently experienced by runners and walkers) and bursitis, an inflammation of the small fluid-like sacs that cushion joints, muscles, and bones.


Acute pain occurs suddenly when you hurt yourself playing a sport or working out. The pain and swelling can be severe and often there is an inability to move the joint that is hurt or to put weight on it. With fractures, there may be a bone or joint that is visibly out of place. Chronic pain can crop up after your injury has healed when you’ve played a sport or exercised for a long time, and you feel pain both when working out and resting. Many find that as they age chronic injuries become more persistent.

Whether you have a new injury or something chronic has flared up, it’s important to stop exercising for a while. “Working through the pain” is never a good idea. While exercise is often a form of rehab for sports injuries, treatment, whether professional or home care, should always be the first step. If the injury is acute, see a doctor immediately.


Sports doctors recommend the RICE method as the best method for nonacute sports-related pain:

Rest: Injured muscles or tissue need time to heal. If you have a sore foot, leg, or ankle, don’t put all your weight on it. If your shoulder is bothering you, stop lifting weights and avoid carrying heavy bags.

Ice: Although heat may sound more appealing, physicians agree that putting an ice pack on the injured area several times daily is one of the best ways to heal. Ice has natural anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce pain and swelling. Wrap a bag of frozen peas or a plastic bag of crushed ice in a thin cloth, and place it on the injury; don’t apply an ice pack to bare skin. Keep the ice pack on for 15–20 minutes each time.

Compression: Applying pressure (compression) to an injury can help reduce swelling. An elastic bandage found at any pharmacy will do; there are also special boots and air casts, but you may need to get them from a doctor.

Elevation: By elevating the injured area or limb above your heart, gravity will help drain fluids away from swollen tissues and ease pain.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also relieve pain and inflammation, but not reduce swelling. There are also many over-the-counter pain-relief creams and gels. Arnica, a homeopathic remedy long used for bruising, pain, soreness, and swelling from injuries or overuse, is becoming more accepted by mainstream physicians as useful for non-acute injuries.


If your soreness doesn’t improve after 72 hours or so, or the pain gets worse, it’s time to seek medical care. Orthopedists (some specialize in sports medicine) deal with impairments of the skeletal system, including bones, muscles, and ligaments, and will be able to perform surgery, if required.

Chiropractors focus on treating musculoskeletal complaints, including back, neck, and joint pain. They have broad diagnostic skills and practice a hands-on approach that often includes “chiropractic manipulation” to restore mobility by manually adjusting affected joints and tissues. This kind of treatment can be painful but ultimately loosens up tightness and helps the healing process.

Physical therapists are health-care professionals who maintain, restore, and improve movement activity and health. They work in hospitals, private physical therapy practices, with professional sports teams and athletes, and in university settings. Sometimes you need to see a physician to get a prescription for physical therapy treatment.


Always warm up before you play sports or do other strenuous activities, including running or riding a bike, and cool down and stretch afterward. Pay attention to your technique — many gyms offer personal training or coaching for those new to working out with weights or other fitness equipment. Most important, don’t overdo it. Many injuries are caused by overuse. Alternate long workouts with shorter ones, and vary your activities. Staying active is important, but working out too hard is a sure way to hurt yourself and miss your regular fitness routine altogether.

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