Dos and Don'ts of Sports Injury Recovery

Whether you're an athlete, weekend warrior or exercise newbie, you're bound to get a sports injury. Sports injuries are so common they're among the top reasons why people go to the emergency room. How you treat your injury determines how well you'll bounce back.  The American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) calls it "return to play: ... the point in recovery ... when a person is able to go back to playing sports or participate in an activity at a pre-injury level." 

There are two types of sports injuries: Acute (usually sudden and painful) and Chronic (occur over time or due to over use). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) say the most common sports injuries are:

  • Sprains and strains
  • Knee injuries
  • Swollen muscles
  • Achilles tendon injuries
  • Pain along the shin bone
  • Fractures
  • Dislocations

AAOS and the National Athletic Trainers Assocition say sports injuries should be treated immediately with the RICE technique:

  • R - Rest - Quit playing. Allow the traumatized area to recover and avoid additional injury. Rest periods can vary from days to weeks depending on the severity of the injury.
  • I - Ice - Use ice packs to reduce inflammation and decrease pain for approximately 10-15 minutes.
  • C - Compression - Wrap the injured area with an elastic bandage to minimize swelling and provide support but not so tightly that you restrict circulation.
  • E - Elevation - Raise the injured area above the level of the heart to minimize swelling.

While many sports injuries need nothing more than RICE and time, some require immediate medical attention.  Your primary care or emergency room physician will treat immediate trauma and refer you to appropriate specialists  (orthopedist, sports medicine specialist and/or physical therapist).

How do professional athletes get back in the game? AAOS offers Tips From the Pros to Speed Your Recovery:

    * Maintain balanced physical conditioning

    * Make sure injuries are recognized early and treated promptly

    * Participate in a full functional rehabilitation program

    * Stay fit while injured

    * Keep a positive, upbeat mental attitude

How do you stay fit while resting an injury?  Be creative.  If you can't run, swim.  Can't get your cast wet?  Use a stationary bike.  Do strength training.  Ask the experts for safe suggestions.

Once the initial trauma has healed, the next phase of recovery involves regaining full motion and strength of the injured limb or joint.  AAOS says, "For most injuries, gentle protective range-of-motion exercises can be started almost immediately."

When your strength is close to pre-injury levels start functional drills like brisk walks, light jogs, and light throwing.  AAOS says, "Once you have progressed with motion, strength, endurance, and agility, . . . you can try higher levels of sport-specific movement patterns . . . monitored by your physical therapist or certified athletic trainer.  Tape, braces, or supports [may] help during this transition time." 

Don't push it.  Recovery takes time, and jumping back in too soon is an invitation to re-injury.