Sports Injuries

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are sports injuries?

Sports injuries occur while you are playing any type of athletic sport, exercising, or taking part in other recreational activities. These injuries are usually orthopedic in nature. This means they affect the musculoskeletal system—your bones, joints, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues. However, the term can also encompass head injuries, such as a concussion.

Common orthopedic sports conditions include:

  • Fractures. The severity of the fracture can range from a stress fracture, to a simple break, to a complex injury involving multiple bones and joint structures.

  • Joint dislocations. This injury occurs when the bones of a joint slip out of their normal position.

  • Ligament injuries. Ligaments are strong connective tissue bands that hold bones together at a joint. Injuries to them include sprains, such as an ankle sprain, and a partial or complete ligament tear, such as a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) or torn MCL (medial collateral ligament).

  • Overuse injuries. Another name for this type of injury is repetitive strain injury (RSI). An RSI occurs over time from repetitive stresses or forces on muscles, joints, and other tissues. This causes gradually causes wear and tear. Shin splints are a common sports-related overuse injury.

  • Pulled muscles and other muscle conditions. A pulled muscle is a type of soft tissue injury called a strain. Common examples include a pulled groin muscle or pulled hamstring. Other muscle conditions can include muscle spasms, compartment syndrome, and muscle contusions.

  • Tendon problems. Tendons are another type of connective tissue band. They attach muscles to bones. Tendinitis is a common form of sports-related injury.

Seek prompt medical care for symptoms of an overuse injury, such as a gradual onset of pain that worsens with specific activities. You should also see your doctor promptly for symptoms of a minor acute injury that worsen or do not get better with rest and over-the-counter pain relievers. Seek immediate medical care (or call 911) for any potentially serious sports injury, such as bone fractures and joint dislocations.

Concussion is a specific type of sports injury that also requires prompt medical care and neurological evaluation, no matter how mild you think the concussion. Your primary care doctor can perform the initial evaluation, or you can see a neurologist.

What are symptoms of sports injuries?

Pain is a common symptom for most sports injuries, but the type of pain can be different. Sharp, stabbing pain often accompanies acute injuries, such as a fracture. Depending on the injury, the pain may also feel dull, achy, cramping, burning or throbbing. You may also notice the pain comes and goes. Certain activities can worsen the pain, while rest may relieve it. Explain all your symptoms to your doctor because the information helps your doctor determine the type of injury you have and its severity.

Other common sports injury symptoms include:

  • Bruising

  • Difficulty using a limb or putting weight on it

  • Joint stiffness and limited range of motion

  • Muscle spasms

  • Numbness, tingling or weakness

  • Swelling or abnormal appearance, which is more likely with fractures and dislocations

  • Warmth and redness

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Severe sports injuries, such as fractures and dislocations, can lead to complications. These injuries need medical attention right away. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these potentially serious symptoms including:

  • Deformity or lump on a joint or bone

  • Hearing a snapping, grinding or popping sound during the injury

  • Inability to move a joint or limb or bear weight on it

  • Open wound or bone poking through the skin

  • Severe pain or swelling

For concussion, symptoms to watch for include headache, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, and behavioral changes, such as irritability.

What causes sports injuries?

Trauma is the main cause of sports injuries. For acute injuries, such an ACL tear or bone fractures, this can include direct blows to a body part and excessive force from falls. Noncontact injuries can happen if the playing surface is uneven or if the athlete improperly plants a foot while running. Failing to warm up properly before activities can also lead to acute injuries, such as muscle pulls. Other causes include poor training, conditioning or form.

Chronic overuse injuries develop gradually over time from prolonged or repetitive stresses or forces. Using a body part in the same pattern and repeatedly causes small stress to build on each other. ‘Tennis elbow’ is a familiar chronic overuse injury but nearly any athletic endeavor can experience this painful problem. Eventually, chronic overuse causes wear and tear on the tissues. The result is inflammation, irritation and swelling. Local inflammation and swelling affects the nerves in the area leading to pain. You can also have nerve damage and neuropathy directly from the injury.

What are the risk factors for sports injuries?

Playing contact sports and participating in activities with repetitive motions make sports injuries more likely. There are several other factors that increase the risk of a sports injury, including:

  • Fatigue

  • Lack of diversity in activities

  • Muscle imbalances, which cause one muscle group to overcompensate for another group

  • Muscle tightness or weakness

  • Not using protective gear or using the wrong gear

  • Older age

  • Poor sports technique

Reducing your risk of sports injuries

You can’t always prevent sports injuries because they are often accidents. However, you may be able to lower your risk of a sports injury by:

  • Balancing strength training with stretching and flexibility exercises

  • Cross-training with a variety of activities

  • Maintaining physical conditioning

  • Warming up appropriately before physical activity

  • Wearing the right protective equipment with the proper fit

Whether you are an athlete or play sports recreationally (the so-called “weekend warrior”), talk with your doctor about your risk of injury and how to protect yourself. You can also rely on athletic trainers and sports medicine providers for advice on staying healthy. Even if you participate in sports occasionally, make sure you are prepared: Be in good physical condition, warm up your muscles before play begins, and wear any necessary protective gear, such as knee, elbow and wrist braces.

How are sports injuries treated?

The first step to take after a sports injury is to stop playing or exercising when you are hurt. Continuing to push through the pain often causes more damage and can lengthen your recovery. Mild to moderate injuries often respond to home treatment with RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Naprosyn), may help reduce swelling and ease pain.

Your doctor may also recommend therapeutic exercises, or even physical therapy, to speed your recovery. Sometimes, sports injuries require cast immobilization or surgery to repair the damage.

What are the potential complications of sports injuries?

Many sports injuries heal without complications or limitations. One of the keys to successful healing is seeking timely treatment. Left untreated, sports injuries can lead to permanent damage and limited range of motion. Other complications include chronic pain, disability, and weakness. Even with treatment, trying to do too much too fast after an injury can contribute to these complications.

Carefully following your doctor’s advice and recovery plan is the best way to avoid long-term problems. Working with a physical therapist can also help speed your recovery and prevent future problems.

Was this helpful?
  1. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
  2. Collateral Ligament Injuries. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  3. Kneecap Dislocation. U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  4. Overuse Injuries in Children. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  5. Overuse Injury. Medscape.
  6. Overuse Injury: How to Prevent Training Injuries. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
  7. Repetitive Stress Injuries. Nemours Foundation.
  8. Shin Splints. American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.
  9. Sports Injuries. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  10. Sprains and Strains. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  11. Stress Fractures. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  12. What Is a Sports Medicine Specialist? American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
  13. Sports Concussion. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.