Tips for Caring for Sports Injuries

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You can wear all the right safety gear. You can stick to a sensible training program. You can follow all the tips for injury prevention. But sometimes, even when you do everything right, things can go wrong. If you do get hurt, responding properly can help you return to your sport safely and sometimes more quickly.

The first thing you need to do following any kind of sports injury is stop the activity. If you experience any of the warning signs of an injury, including excessive muscle fatigue, a deep tingling sensation or throbbing in one area of the body, stop what you are doing and rest. If the pain goes away, and stays away after you resume activity, you're probably fine. However, if the pain returns, you need to listen to your body and take care of the injury immediately. Following are other tips to keep in mind when you experience an injury:

Help yourself with R.I.C.E.

Mild sprains, strains and other minor sports injuries can be treated successfully without going to your doctor — if you know what to do.

Your first course of action should be to follow the steps in R.I.C.E (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation):

  • Rest — Do not continue to exercise and put stress on an injured muscle or ligament. And don't go back to "playing as usual" until you can make it through your normal daily routine easily and without pain. Keep in mind, this rest period could take as little as a couple of days, or it could require weeks or months to recover. If you're impatient, try a different activity while continuing to rest the injured joint or muscle. For example, if you hurt your elbow playing tennis, try walking on the treadmill.

  • Ice — Put an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables) on the injured area right away. And keep it there for 10-20 minutes. Do this several times a day for two to three days after the injury to help reduce pain and slow the blood flow, which decreases swelling. DO NOT APPLY HEAT during the first 72 hours following an injury. This includes hot pads, hot baths and warming liniment. Heat applied to a fresh injury will make things worse.

  • Compression — A light wrap (Ace bandage or tape) may help prevent the accumulation of fluid.

  • Elevation — To help reduce swelling, keep the injured site raised above the level of your heart.

Take a pain reliever in moderation

Nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory pain medications, such as ibuprofen, can be useful in treating a sports injury. They decrease inflammation and reduce pain. Use the medication only as directed, and never for more than 10 days, unless advised by your physician. Also, don't take pain medication to "mask" acute pain so that you can continue to work out.

Start moving

After the pain and swelling have subsided, you can slowly return to your previous level of activity. In fact, it's important to work toward returning to a full range of motion to prevent scarring around the injury site. After a couple of days' rest, gently stretching can help you prevent scar tissue from forming and interfering with movement later.

Cross-train during recovery

To maintain your endurance and overall conditioning during your rehabilitation period, consider cross-training. You can give your injury "relative rest" by shifting the focus of your exercise to another part of the body. For example, you can swim after an ankle injury.

When to get medical help

Some injuries should not be treated on your own; they need to be evaluated by a doctor. How do you know if the injury is serious enough to require professional medical attention? The severity of an injury is usually indicated by the level of pain. The worse the pain, the more serious the injury is likely to be.

As a rule, you should see a doctor for:

  • Any eye injury

  • Severe pain, disability or numbness

  • Loss of movement

  • A minor injury that doesn't improve or heal with three weeks of home care and rest

  • Infection, pus, red streaks, swollen nodes or fever

  • Any injury marked by bleeding, immediate swelling or bruising

  • An extremity that appears to be shorter than usual or in an unnatural position

  • Exposed bone

If you have any of the last three symptoms, you may have sustained a fracture. To be safe, immobilize the injured area by splinting it. You can either tie it to another stiff object (splinting one joint above and below the injured area) or tape it to another part of the body (e.g., one toe to another toe). Then see your doctor.