About Sports Injuries: Treatment and Prevention

Treatment of sports injuries is based on the RICE principle:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Rest stops new injury and bleeding. Ice eases pain and reduces inflammation by constricting the blood vessels. Elevation and compression limit the amount of swelling and fluid accumulation around the injured part. Naturally, back injuries can't be elevated, but otherwise the principle is the same.

Ice should be crushed so as to better conform to your shape. It should be placed in a bag that is wrapped around the injury. Put a towel between the bag and the skin. Then wrap a bandage around the icebag, not so tight as to cut off blood flow. Ice only constricts blood vessels for about 10 minutes, after which time they "rebound." You should leave the ice in place for only 10 minutes at a time, taking it off for the same period. Alternate like this for an hour or two, keeping the injury elevated all the time. You should carry out this procedure several times during the first day or so after injury. If the injury is in the leg or ankle, don't try to stand up the first day, and do your best to keep it elevated as much as possible.

If there's some other exercise you can perform that doesn't stress your injured part, you can do that to remain fit, but don't try to use the injured part until healing is well along. Then you can start light exercises to get it back in shape. In the long run, you may want to exercise it more to make it stronger, in order to prevent repeat occurrences. A doctor or physiotherapist might recommend specific exercises to strengthen particular muscles and tendons.

Other treatments include surgery and steroid injections. Surgery is an extreme measure and one you're unlikely to need if you treat injuries with respect. It's more effective for some injuries (like tennis elbow) than others (like rotator cuff tendinitis). Steroid injections can relieve pain but may delay healing. They can be safely used once or twice, but should never be used as a cure-all or a first resort.

There are two ways you can prevent sports injuries. One is by using the right equipment. This may mean orthotics (shoe inserts) to control excessive movement of the foot. These may reduce the width of your footwear, so you may need new shoes. On the other hand, if you have lower leg injuries from running there's a good chance your old shoes were partly responsible anyway. Look for shoes with good inner-ankle support.

Tennis players should avoid excessively narrow shafts, and try to play back- and forehand shots with their whole arm and shoulder rather than just the wrist. Racquet strings shouldn't be too tight. Wet, heavy balls are more likely to cause problems, as is hitting the ball off-centre.

The second way of preventing injury is by stretching, warming up, and cooling down. Everyone seems to have their own opinion on these. The best medical evidence suggests that warming up definitely makes the muscles stronger and more injury-resistant. Stretching improves muscle performance but not injury resistance. It should be done after warming up, not before. Don't stretch so far that it's painful. Cooling down may help prevent dizziness form blood pooling in dilated leg veins, but it doesn't help muscle soreness the next day, which is caused by injury to the fibres.

All strenuous exercise involves damage to individual muscle fibres. Exercise works because they tend to heal stronger than before. You must give them the time to heal, however. This takes 48 hours. You shouldn't vigorously exercise the same muscle in two successive days, as you'll be damaging it faster than it can heal. If you want to exercise every day, you should either work on different muscle groups on alternate days, or do "strength-training" exercises one day and cardiovascular exercises the next. Only swimmers can get away with doing the same vigorous exercises every day.

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