Sports medicine isn't just for chiseled, pro athletes who get carted off the field in need of speedy recovery. Even weekend warriors who experience pain during workouts can take advantage of the techniques sports-med docs use to diagnose, treat and prevent fitness-related ailments. If you lead an active lifestyle, you'll likely recognize these six most common sports injuries:
Achilles tendon pain or numbness
Sprains and strains
It's never a good idea to push through pain while exercising on the elliptical, playing on the soccer field, or doing any other type of physical activity. In fact, doing so can lead to further damage. Mark Klion, M.D., clinical instructor of sports medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Department of Orthopedics in New York, shares at-home remedies that work plus gives tips on how to find a trusted specialist near you if the aches persist.
Q: Can sports injuries be treated at home?
A: Sometimes. Pain from an injury stems from inflammation. Try the RICE method, which I modify to RRICE (Relative Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), to ease swelling and irritation. I say relative rest because with many injuries, like swollen muscles, you can stay active through the healing process and maintain aerobic conditioning—but you'll have to switch from high- to low-impact activities. Apply ice within 12 to 36 hours of getting injured to reduce swelling, then use an ACE bandage to keep the area tight and stiff. Lastly, elevate the extremity so that gravity pulls excess fluid away from the affected area, further decreasing swelling—the one thing that can really slow down the rehab process.
Q: When is it time to see a doctor?
A: Sports injuries can be acute, occurring suddenly during exercise, or chronic, developing over time. While both types can be treated at home, if the injury is severe—for example, you think you've broken a bone or there is excessive bleeding—or continues to be painful five days after treatment, you should see a doctor. Signs of acute injuries include bruising, swelling, deformity (such as bone dislocation), inability to place weight on an area, and sharp pain. Serious acute injuries, like ankle sprains or Achilles tendon ruptures, should be taken to the ER. Chronic, also called overuse, injuries like tendonitis, shin splints, or stress fractures result from repetitive training, improper stretching, or gear problems. They cause dull, persistent aches that gradually worsen. If you're limping, numb, or experiencing less flexibility than normal you should see a doctor.
Q: What sports injuries do you treat most often?
A: Plantar fasciitis, swelling and irritation of the tissue at the bottom of the foot, which can occur in any active person, not just a hard-core athlete. Stress fractures, tiny cracks in bone, in the lower leg, which result from running or other high-impact activities like basketball. Runner's knee, pain or a grating feeling caused by overuse or putting too much repetitive force on the knee, which is also typical in runners.
Q: How are these injuries treated?
A: First, you have to recognize when the pain you're feeling is more than soreness and something is wrong. Then, stop doing what you're doing. If you push through pain then you start a cycle of continued micro injury. The healing process usually begins with switching activities. Then you retrain the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that were exposed to the stress, so they can heal. Doing flexibility and strength exercises (or physical therapy), in a range of motion that's comfortable allows the injured muscles to be exposed to gentle, healing stress. The tissues respond by repairing damaged cellular mechanisms. Surgery is intended for injuries where there's major structural damage of the tissues, such as the complete separation that occurs with an Achilles tendon rupture.
Q: How long does recovery typically take?
A: This process takes time, anywhere from four to six weeks, sometimes longer. I tell patients to expect recuperation to take as long as the symptoms have been around
Q: How can these sports injuries be prevented?
A: Step one is smart training. You want to incorporate strength and flexibility exercises into your program. All of our soft tissues—muscles, tendons and ligaments—respond to the stresses of working out by getting stronger and more resistant to injury. Cross training also prevents injury. Part of the reason triathlons are so popular is that preparation for them involves running, biking and swimming so you can train without overloading any one muscle group. You also want to make sure your footwear fits properly and that you're using the right gear.
Q: How can I find a local sports-med doctor?
A: You can go to the websites of these two professional organizations, enter your zip code, and see if there's a doctor near you: AOSSM for orthopedic surgeons and AMSSM, for physicians who perform non-surgical treatment of sports injuries.
Q: If there's no specialist listed in my state but I have a referral, what credentials am I looking for?
A: Ideally, you want a doctor who, after completing a primary residency, finished additional training through an accredited fellowship in sports medicine. Also, look for someone who's a member of sports medicine societies, like the American College of Sports Medicine, and has a particular specialty in your injury or prioritizes life to include fitness, especially your preferred activity.