How to treat and prevent the 8 most common sports injuries

 If you’re an athlete, you know there are many benefits to participating in sports.

From an endorphins boost to maintaining a healthy weight to enhanced leadership and team-building skills, there’s no shortage of reasons to play sports.

But to stay involved in sports, it’s important you treat your body right.

With an estimated 7 million Americans receiving treatment for sport and recreational injuries annually, proper care is key to avoiding the sidelines – regardless of whether you’re a weekend warrior or competitive amateur athlete.

So how do you prevent injuries or best treat them once they’ve occurred? Let’s take a look at the most common sports injuries and their causes.

Treating sports injuries for optimal recovery

Your first question when you get injured is probably, “When can I return to play?”  After all, you want to get back to the activities you love.

Know that the answer to this question varies depending on the type and degree of injury you sustained.

Should you have questions or concerns, it helps to speak with a sports injury doctor. At urgent care centers like Urgent Care, you can get a same-day appointment with a practitioner who regularly sees and treats sports injuries. Then, if your injury requires assistance from a physical therapist, orthopedic surgeon or another specialist, you can easily get an in-network referral.

1. ACL tear

An ACL tear is most typically a non-contact injury that occurs in sports involving sudden stops, jumps or changes in direction. Many people hear or feel a “pop” in the knee, followed by swelling and an unstable feeling, where it becomes difficult to bear weight on the injured knee.

Because of their anatomy and biomechanics, women are more likely to have an ACL tear then men who participate in the same sports.

Additionally, if you’ve previously had an ACL injury, you’re more likely to re-tear it.

Questions for the doctor

Can you still walk with a torn ACL?

Walking the first few days after your injury may be painful or difficult. You might have to use crutches to help you walk. After you’ve recovered your sense of balance, it shouldn’t cause any further damage to walk.

However, you should be cautious to maintain an even and steady pace, and avoid any twisting movements similar to those that caused the injury.

Especially if it’s a minor tear, the doctor will likely not only recommend you keep moving but that you try mobility and strengthening exercises as part of a rehab program with a physical therapist. The good news is that prognosis for a partially torn ACL is often favorable, with the recovery period usually lasting about 3 months.

A complete ACL rupture has a much less favorable outcome without surgery. To repair a torn ACL, surgeons typically use a substitute graft made of tendon from another part of the body, like the patellar, hamstring or quadriceps, or from a cadaver.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

You should seek immediate medical attention if you have an injury to your knee and it appears to be deformed, or you have severe pain or swelling right after the injury. Also, head straight to the emergency room if you have signs of nerve or blood vessel damage – numbness or tingling below the injured knee, pale or bluish skin, a cold lower leg, or an inability to move your leg below the injury.

If you’re unable to straighten your leg completely or your knee buckles, can’t bear weight or locks in one position, you should call your doctor or visit urgent care.

2. Ankle sprain

Talk about common – some 25,000 people sprain their ankle every day! While playing sports can be the culprit, many activities, such as stepping on an uneven surface or even wearing inappropriate footwear, can cause this kind of injury.

Ankle sprains happen to people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

Questions for the doctor

For any type of acute musculoskeletal injury, doctors recommend a treatment approach using the pneumonic “RICE.”  This stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation to relieve pain and swelling, as well as promote proper healing and flexibility.

RICE works well with Grade 1 (mild) or Grade 2 (moderate) ankle sprains, but is less effective with Grade 3 (severe) ankle sprains.

New research is suggesting however, that this method is a bit outdated, and a new P.O.L.I.C.E. method should be used instead that prioritizes movement and less rest to help heal sprains move quickly.


Some home remedies to try, besides RICE, if you have a Grade 1 or Grade 2 ankle sprain include:

  • Using elastic bandages to wrap your ankle (not too tightly as to cut off circulation)
  • Wearing a brace to support your ankle
  • Using crutches, if needed, to avoid loading the ankle
  • Taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID (like ibuprofen), or acetaminophen

For Grade 3 injuries, represented by intense pain and difficulty walking because of torn ligaments, you should consult your doctor. Surgery may be your best recourse.

Are there exercises that help with a sprained ankle?

After the initial pain and swelling of an ankle sprain have subsided, you should perform a series of range of motion stretches twice a day as recommended by the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society.

Then, once your range of motion is almost completely restored, you can incorporate resistance and stability exercises that strengthen the ankle. These home exercises will help speed up sprained ankle recovery.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

It is impossible to determine the severity of an ankle sprain without physically examining the injured ankle, It can be difficult at times to clinically differentiate an ankle sprain from an ankle fracture, which is why an x-ray is often required.

Therefore, if you injure your ankle, and you’re unable bear weight or there’s a lot of swelling or deformity, it’s best to visit the doctor’s. A practitioner can examine your ankle to determine the severity of injury and order imaging if deemed necessary.

3. Concussion

Several factors can contribute to getting a concussion. The number one cause of concussions: playing contact sports, particularly football. But this isn’t the only factor. Your position or style of play (i.e., how aggressive you are) can also increase your chances of sustaining a concussion.   

Statistics show that people younger than 24 or over 75 are at the greatest risk for a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI) like a concussion. Additionally, female athletes report more concussions than males in the same sports.

Questions for the doctor

Is there a quick concussion test I can take?

If you’re hit in the head while playing a sport but you feel fine, you might want to know whether it’s safe to get back into the game.

While a new blood test has recently been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to determine whether there’s bleeding in the brain, it takes 3 to 4 hours to give results and can’t actually show whether a concussion has taken place.

To diagnose a concussion, you should visit a medical practitioner for a neurological exam and the practitioner can determine the best plan of action.

The most appropriate “medicine” a doctor can order for a concussion is rest. Avoid physical exertion or activities that require a lot of thought or mental concentration. Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor may suggest you take shorter school days or workdays, or take breaks throughout the day.

If you’re experiencing pain, an acetaminophen pain reliever may help. Because ibuprofen and aspirin increase the risk of bleeding, stay clear of these medications.

Eventually, once all signs and symptoms have resolved, you can discuss resuming sports with your doctor. It should be noted that returning to play too soon can increase the risk of a second concussion and a potentially fatal brain injury.

Before returning to normal activity, it is imperative that a neurologist, or another physician qualified in concussion management, perform follow up neurologic evaluation to confirm complete resolution and to minimize long term complications.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

After any trauma to the head that presents with concussion symptoms, you should visit the doctor. Be sure to go to an urgent care center or the emergency room if you have a bad headache, repeated vomiting, difficulty using your arms or legs, or worsening confusion.

4. Groin pull

Common in athletes that play sports requiring a lot of running or jumping, a groin pull can vary in severity. You’ll likely know you’ve strained your groin if pain appears suddenly while engaged in activity. However, if can also occur over time, due to overuse of either soft tissues or bones in the groin or hip area.

Other indicators that you’ve pulled your groin include pain or tenderness when the skin over the injured tissue is pressed, or swelling, discoloration or stiffness in the groin, upper leg or hip.

Lower abdominal pain is also typical, but this could be a sign of an inguinal hernia or osteitis pubis, especially if the pain occurs while coughing, sneezing or straining during a bowel movement.

Questions for the doctor

How long does it take for a groin injury to heal?

Your length of recovery from a groin strain depends on several factors, including your age and health, and whether you’ve had a previous groin injury. It’s also impacted by the degree of your injury (Grade 1— Grade 3). If your groin strain is mild, you’ll likely recover within a couple weeks – whereas if it’s more severe, it could take between 6 to 8 weeks to heal.

To prevent further aggravating the injury, it’s recommended you avoid any activity that could cause more strain, as it will likely take longer for your injury to heal and could even lead to permanent damage.

What stretches can you do for a pulled groin?

Performing stretching and strengthening exercises can help with the healing process. However, you should avoid stretching during the acute injury phase (usually the first 72 hours). After this time, start with gentle, static stretches before trying more dynamic ones. Get more details on specific groin pull exercises here.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

It’s good to see a doctor to determine the extent of your injury, which impacts recovery time. Besides a physical examination, your practitioner can perform an x-ray or MRI. Additionally, if you have a dull or painful ache in your groin or a lump near your groin, it’s possible your injury could be a hernia that is often only treated through surgery.

After your injury, monitor your pain level. If you experience little or no improvement – or the pain becomes worse – seek medical attention to determine if there’s another underlying cause for your pain. Groin strains can be persistent, debilitating injuries that can hinder return to competition and benefit greatly from physical therapy.

5. Hamstring strain

A pulled hamstring is very typical in athletes, especially those who participate in sports that require sprinting. Oftentimes, this type of injury is the result of muscle overload to the back of the legs. But there are other reasons as well. Poor conditioning or muscle tightness, imbalance or fatigue are also risk factors for pulling a hamstring.

Because a child’s bones may grow faster than their muscles, adolescents are particularly prone to hamstring strains. Obesity, bad nutrition and previous pelvic or knee injury can also make you more susceptible.

Questions for the doctor

How long does it take to recover from a hamstring injury?

Like a groin strain, recovery time for a hamstring strain is dependent on several factors including the severity of the injury (Grade 1 – Grade 3). You should keep in mind that people heal at different rates; however, average healing times for a Grade 1 hamstring strain are 2 – 10 days, for a Grade 2 injury 10 days to 6 weeks, and for a Grade 3 pull 6 – 10 weeks.

If you injure your hamstring, there are several strengthening exercises you can try. For 12 common hamstring exercises, check out this video. Before beginning any rehab program, it’s important you check with your doctor or physical therapist.

Whatever you do, don’t return to your previous level of physical activity until hamstring strain symptoms subside and you can move your injured leg as freely as your uninjured leg.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

Most mild hamstring injuries can be treated at home. But you should see a doctor if you can’t bear any weight on your injured leg, or if you can’t walk without substantial pain. To confirm your diagnosis, your practitioner might perform an x-ray or MRI.

Only in severe cases, where a tendon or muscle was pulled completely away from the bone, may surgery be required. Hamstring strains can be persistent, debilitating injuries that can hinder return to competition and benefit greatly from physical therapy.

6. Patellofemoral syndrome

Participating in running and jumping sports can put extra stress on the knees, causing patellofemoral syndrome in some 3 million people annually. In fact, patellofemoral joint complaints are one of the most common musculoskeletal complaints in all age groups.

While almost anyone can be diagnosed with runner’s knee, it occurs most frequently in physically active adolescent and young adults, and is twice as likely in female athletes than male athletes.

Repeated stress to the knee joints and muscle imbalances around the hip and knee have been found to be associated with patellofemoral pain syndrome. In addition, knee injury or surgery are also risk factors.

Questions for the doctor

How long does it take for runner’s knee to heal?

Patellofemoral syndrome, like many other sports injuries, has no designated time for recovery. This depends on the person and the severity of your injury. Usually, pain subsides within a week’s time, especially if you’re resting and spending as little time putting pressure on your knee as possible.

The key is to be patient!

If you’d like to continue working out, consider swimming or cross-training exercises that don’t load your knee. Then, once the pain has diminished, it’s recommended you use a stationary bike to ease your knee back into more strenuous, weight-bearing activities like running.

How do you stretch your patellar tendon?

Since muscle weakness and lack of flexibility are the major causes of knee injury, stretching and strengthening exercises can help. There are several patellofemoral syndrome exercises doctors and physical therapists encourage patients to try. You should, however, avoid exercises like lunges or squats, or using leg extension machines that put added pressure on the kneecap.

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

Make sure to schedule an appointment with a doctor if your knee pain was caused by forceful impact, or is accompanied by significant pain or swelling, fever, redness, or tenderness and warmth around the joint. Also, have someone drive you to urgent care if your knee pain is associated with any of the following:

  • A deformed joint
  • A popping noise at the time of injury
  • An inability to bear weight
  • Intense pain
  • Sudden swelling

To confirm that you have runner’s knee, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam that may include an x-ray, MRI or CT scan.

In most cases, surgery can be avoided. However, it may be recommended if your kneecap needs to be realigned or your meniscus is damaged.

7. Shin splints

As the most prevalent lower leg injury, shin splints impact a broad range of individuals and for a broad range of reasons. Most often it’s overtraining and poor body mechanics (fallen arches, overpronation or supination) that cause shin splints.

But they can also be a result of not warming up or cooling down, or not giving yourself enough time to recover between activity.

It’s important that if your footwear is new, you break them in – or if they’re worn out, you replace them with sneakers that provide better support.

Questions for the doctor

It’s probably not what you want to hear, but the fastest way to recover from shin splints is to stop the activity that’s causing the pain.

Putting more stress on your shinbones can not only make the pain worse, it can also potentially lead to a stress fracture.

If you’re adamant about continuing exercise, try an activity like swimming or biking that doesn’t load your legs.

When you do return to activity, be sure to take it easy, since starting out too vigorously can re-injure your shins.

How do you treat shin splints?

Getting adequate rest is your best bet to a speedy recovery from shin splints. However, if you’re still in pain, here are some other remedies to consider:

  • Use ice to reduce swelling
  • Keep your legs elevated
  • Take a NSAID, such as ibuprofen
  • Tape your shins or wear elastic compression bandages
  • Do some recovery stretches, or use a foam roller to massage your shins

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

If your shin splints don’t respond to at home treatment methods, it’s time to see a doctor. It’s also wise to seek medical help if your shins feel hot or are visibly swollen, or if there’s pain even when you’re resting.

Severe pain in your shins after a fall or accident could be indicative of a fracture or other condition that may require diagnostic testing like an x-ray, MRI or CT scan.

Your physician may find you will benefit from physical therapy or referral to a podiatrist to assess and treat any foot malalignments with orthotic devices.

8. Tennis elbow

The name is a bit deceiving! Whether you spend a lot of time on the tennis court or not, you can develop tennis elbow. Any activity that involves repetitive gripping can contribute to tendinitis in the elbow and arm.

Some of the main culprits include golf, weight lifting, racquetball, and squash. But individuals whose jobs require repeated use of plumbing tools, painting, typing, cutting up cooking ingredients, or driving screws, for example, are also susceptible to injury. It’s most common in people between 30 – 50 years old.

Questions for the doctor

How long does it take to recover from tennis elbow?

Unfortunately, there’s no overnight remedy to heal tennis elbow since tendons by nature heal slowly. Depending on the person and the extent of injury, it can take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to fully recover.

Plus, once you’ve been diagnosed with lateral epicondylitis, it’s more likely to return. To recover faster, the right treatment approach is key.

What is the best treatment for tennis elbow?

There are several treatment options that can help ease the pain of tennis elbow:

  • Stop participation in sports or heavy work activities for several weeks, and rest
  • Attend physical therapy sessions that focus on strengthening the muscles in the forearm
  • Take a NSAID, such as ibuprofen to help with pain
  • Get an injection to the damaged tendon at your doctor’s recommendation

When to visit urgent care or a specialist

Talk to a doctor if at-home treatment methods don’t help to alleviate elbow pain and tenderness. You may also want to schedule an appointment with a medical professional to ensure that you’re properly diagnosed with tennis elbow.

Your doctor can perform a physical exam to pinpoint causes of pain. Additional tests, like an x-ray, MRI or EMG might be performed to rule out other problems.

If your symptoms don’t get better within 6-12 months, surgery may be the most appropriate course of action.

Preventing Sports Injury in the First Place

Don’t want to worry about the “pain” of sports injuries? Play it safe. Before beginning any sport or exercise, be aware of potential injuries that can occur and prepare accordingly.

For example, if you’re starting to train for a half marathon, discuss an appropriate fitness program and achievable goals with an athletic trainer or seasoned runner.

Prepare for your runs with the right attire, stretches and hydration – and determine safe locations, weather conditions and times to run.

Generally, you want to make sure you’re in the proper condition to start participating in a sport, so you should visit your doctor for a physical exam. Other helpful tips are:

  • Follow the rules of the game
  • Learn how to play the sport right and in the best form
  • Always warm up and cool down
  • Wear gear that protects, fits well and is ideal for the sport
  • Build up your activity gradually
  • Understand your body’s limits – don’t overdo it

Find more specific information on preventing injuries based on the type of sport or injury here.

Bottom line

Getting a sports injury will likely put you out of the game for a period of time.

However, thanks to recent advances in treating sports injuries like arthroscopy and tissue engineering, your prognosis – even for more severe injuries – is pretty good.

No matter what the injury, for the best results, it’s important you follow your doctor’s advice and with proper rehabilitation slowly wean yourself back into pre-injury levels of physical activity.

This way you’ll be able to spend many more years playing the sports you enjoy.