What is a Sports Injury?
It’s widely accepted that regular exercise is for good for health and wellbeing. But if you're serious about sports or you just exercise for fun or to stay healthy, there's a chance that one day you'll be affected by a sports injury.
It’s difficult to say how many people receive sports injuries as many mild injuries are treated at home, so they never get reported. Figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre claim two per cent of cases visiting English A&E departments are sports-related injuries (i). But arguably that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Take running, for example: some experts claim around 60 per cent of runners are injured on average every year (ii).
How sports injuries happen
There are several reasons why you may become injured. You may simply have an accident – falling or tripping, for instance – or you may push yourself too hard, especially when you start taking part in a sporting activity (it’s easy to overestimate your fitness level when you begin, and you can end up doing too much, too quickly). On the other hand many people sustain sports injuries because they don’t warm up properly before they start their activity, while others launch into a sport or type of exercise without learning the correct techniques. Some sports injuries are also caused by using poor or the wrong equipment.
According to the NHS, the ankles and knees are two of the most commonly affected parts of the body that become injured(iii) – though you can get an injury almost anywhere, including your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones or joints.
The good news is that most simple sports injuries get better without any medical attention, and there’s lots you can do to help yourself, including resting until your injury is better. But if you’re in a lot of pain or you’re not recovering after using self-help measures, it’s a good idea to see your GP or go to your nearest A&E department.
If, on the other hand, you have a more serious injury such as a fracture or a dislocated joint, don’t wait to see if you feel better, get medical help immediately.
Types of sports injuries
There are many different ways to get injured. You may hurt your foot, ankle, calf, thigh, knee, back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, neck or head. However, here are the most common sports injuries sustained by everyone from professional sports people to weekend sports warriors:
Strains and sprains
The most common types of sports injuries, sprains are caused by stretched or torn ligament around joints such as the wrists, ankles or knees; strains on the other hand are often referred to as pulled muscles and caused by the muscle fibres stretching too far and tearing. Both strains and sprains can range in their severity, from minor to severe.
Injuries to the knee are also very common, and range from mild pain or tenderness near the kneecap (runner’s knee) to cartilage or ligament damage (the anterior cruciate ligament – or ACL – is one of the four major ligaments in the knee that can often be injured). Cartilage damage, meanwhile, is caused by a piece of cartilage in a joint breaking off, making movement in that joint more difficult.
Subluxations and separations
Sometimes joints can become subluxated (partially dislocated) or separated (dislocated) as the result of a fall or heavy blow that pushes the bones of a joint out of alignment.
These are most common in contact sports, but you can suffer a dislocation if you stretch excessively or if you have a fall. Any dislocation should be treated as an emergency, and a medical professional is needed to put the bone back in place. However, there is also often severe damage to the connective tissue surrounding the joint following a dislocation.
Fingers and shoulders are the most commonly dislocated joints, while dislocations of other joints such as elbows, knees and hips are less common.
When blood vessels are ruptured they cause a contusion (bruise). This can create additional inflammation that can cause more damage to the surrounding tissues.
Pain felt in the shin bone after exercise or activity can be a sign of a sports injury called shin splints, though you may find your foot and ankle are painful too. The most common cause of shin splints is medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), which is thought to be caused by inflammation of the connective tissue that covers the surface of the shin bone. Runners are particularly susceptible to shin splints, as are those who take part in sports with lots of sudden stops and starts (tennis or football, for instance).
This is the term used to describe inflammation of a tendon. Bands of tissue that attach your muscles to your bones, tendons are often injured during sports or activities such as running, as well as those that involve sudden throwing or jumping movements.
You may injure tendons in any part of your body, but the most common areas for sports injuries include tendons in the shoulders, knees, fingers, elbows and the backs of the heels (Achilles tendon).
It can often be difficult to tell the difference between a strain and tendonitis, since a tendons and muscles are closely related. Some tendon injuries are easier to spot – injuries of the Achilles tendon, for instance, as it lies near the surface of the skin. Then again it’s not always necessary to know whether you’ve strained a muscle or a tendon, as the treatment is often the same for both.
Bones often get broken during sports and other physical activities. And like dislocations, they should be treated as emergencies. You may sustain an acute fracture, which is when your bone breaks instantly, or a stress fracture, which is caused by repeated stress on a bone over time. Sports that involve a lot of high impact activity – such as running or a jumping sport – are often the cause of stress fractures.
Treatments for sports injuries
You can treat most mild sports injuries such as strains and sprains yourself at home. The treatment you use will depend on the nature of the injury. The most common injuries – namely strains and sprains – can be self treated initially using the PRICER and HARM principles:
PRICER stands for protect, rest, ice, compression, elevation and rehabilitation. It involves protecting the injured area where possible; resting the area by avoiding exercise and reducing daily activities; applying an ice pack to the affected area for around 20 minutes every three or four hours during the first 48 hours after the injury happens; compressing the affected area with an elastic bandage or similar to limit swelling; and keeping the elevated area raised above heart level for as long as possible during the first 48 hours.
At the same time, avoid HARM – that is, heat, alcohol, running and massage – for 48 - 72 hours after sustaining your injury.
Bruising can also be limited by applying an ice pack or cold compress to the affected area. Cold therapy is also thought to be effective for cases of tendonitis.
Meanwhile, you can ease the pain of a sports injury by taking an over-the-counter painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is classed as a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which means it may also help reduce swelling. However, health experts recommend that NSAIDs shouldn’t be taken for the first 72 hours after injury, because some inflammation is a necessary part of the healing process (iv).
A stronger painkiller called co-codamol is also available over the counter. This contains paracetamol and codeine, and should only be used for three days (taking co-codamol for longer may cause dependency problems). Co-codamol can make you feel drowsy, so don’t take it if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery. It can also cause constipation.
Creams and gels
You can buy sprays and patches that contain cooling agents to help straight after an injury, plus heat sprays, pads, creams and gels that can provide relief later (only use heat 72 hours or more after an injury (iv)). Anti-inflammatory painkillers are also available in cream or gel form (ibuprofen gel, for instance). But do not use ibuprofen or any other type of gel if your skin is broken or damaged.
Always check with a healthcare practitioner before taking pain relief and anti-inflammatory products (including tablets and creams/gels), especially if you’re taking any other medicines or have a medical condition.
Other products such as slings, splints and casts may be useful as they help stop or reduce movement in the injured area, which may help with healing. Sprained joints, however, shouldn’t be kept still, and you should try moving the affected joint gently as soon as it’s not causing too much pain.
If your injury is more severe or persistent, you may need one or more steroid injections or surgery if you have a bad fracture. Other injuries that may sometimes need surgery include torn knee ligaments. On the other hand, you may be offered a course of physiotherapy if you don’t recover from your injury in the short term. Your physiotherapist may use a variety of techniques, including deep tissue massage, hot and cold treatment as well as ultrasound, to speed up your recovery. They may also show you exercises to help strengthen the affected area so that you may avoid another injury in the future.
Many sports injuries experts also believe psychological rehabilitation is as important as physical rehabilitation, as there is some evidence to suggest athletes experience emotional stress when they’re injured (i). Techniques such as visualisation, goal setting and positive thinking may play a part in recovery, say psychologists.
How to prevent sports injuries
It’s not always possible to avoid a sports injury. But there are lots of things you can do to make getting injured less likely, including the following:
Always warm up
It’s crucial to warm up properly before taking part in a physical activity or sport, as it may reduce the risk of some types of injury as well as reduce muscle soreness. Try walking or jogging on the spot for a few minutes, then doing some knee bends, knee lifts and shoulder lifts to prepare your muscles. Doing some gentle stretches before and after exercise will also help keep your muscles more relaxed and flexible.
Start slowly and build up
Whatever type of sport or activity you do, it’s important not to launch into it at maximum speed and intensity when you’re starting out. Take things easy at first and don’t overdo it, particularly if you’re not used to doing much exercise, and build up slowly. Doing too much too soon could see you ending up with an injury before you’ve hardly started – and if you get injured early on, you may give up your sport or activity altogether. It’s important not to give up moving completely though — as this can be a good way to maintain a healthy weight.
Even with the best of intentions it’s not a good idea to play sports or take part in physical activities if you’re not feeling 100 percent. Feeling tired, for instance, can easily lead to accidents and injuries. It’s also a good idea to avoid running on uneven surfaces or exercising in low light, when you may not see obstacles that could result in a fall.
Wear the right shoes and clothes
Always dress appropriately for the sport or activity you’re taking part in, as well as for the season. If it’s cold, wear several light layers of clothing rather than one thick layer.
Wearing the right type of shoe is important, as it can help prevent foot and ankle injuries. If you’re a runner, for instance, make sure your running shoes are suitable for your running style. Different shoes are suitable for different gaits, including shoes for people whose feet roll inwards too much (overpronation) and for those whose feet don’t roll inwards enough (underpronation or supination).
If you’re recovering from an injury, use a sports support or elastic bandage to support the affected muscle or joint when you’re taking part in sport or another physical activity. Sports supports should only be used as a short-term protective measure, however.
Having a healthy balanced diet means you’ll have more energy for being active, so try not to skip meals or eat poorly on training days.
Natural ways to relieve sports injuries
While resting the affected area, you could also try one or more of the following nutritional supplements to help with healing:
Essential for wound healing, vitamin C helps your body produce collagen, which is a basic component of connective tissue. Some researchers believe that if you’re not getting enough vitamin C, you may recover more slowly from an injury (v), while others have found severe injuries increase the body’s need for vitamin C (vi). There is also some evidence that taking vitamin C may reduce pain and help with muscle recovery after intense exercise (vii), and that it may even help bones heal faster after a fracture (viii).
Good nutrition is important for injury recovery, with many experts believing it’s essential to eat foods rich in antioxidants – such as highly pigmented fruits and vegetables – if you want to speed up tissue recovery. Anthocyanidins are substances that give many dark and richly coloured fruit their colour, including blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and red grapes. These substances are thought to help strengthen collagen as well as boost the body’s level of vitamin C.
Thanks to its active ingredient, called curcumin, turmeric is often recommended by natural health practitioners to help relieve inflammation. There’s also evidence that it may help relieve pain. For instance, one study claims plants in the Zingiberacae family – including turmeric – may be effective painkillers with the added benefit of not producing the side effects associated with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and other conventional painkillers (ix). Evidence elsewhere suggests curcumin may speed up wound healing by reducing the body’s natural response to wounds such as inflammation (x).
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements have also been shown to help reduce inflammation (xi), and, like turmeric, may be a safer alternative to NSAIDs (xii). If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish oils.
A substance made from protein-digesting enzymes in pineapple juice and the stem of pineapple plants, bromelain is also thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body (xiii). Often recommended by natural health practitioners as a treatment for sports injuries, bromelain may also help bruises to heal more quickly (xiv).
Produced naturally in the body, glucosamine is essential for producing cartilage. Most commonly known as a treatment for joint health, it’s also popular with some athletes as a supplement to prevent strains and sprains. Indeed, there is some evidence that it may aid recovery from sports injuries to the knee (xv).
This plant, which originally comes from South Africa, has been used in traditional medicine to treat pain, fever and to stimulate digestion. Some experts believe it may also help reduce muscular pain and discomfort (xvi), with one study suggesting it seems to reduce pain more than placebo (xvii).
Used for several pain-related conditions, sour cherry juice has been found to reduce muscular pain brought on by excessive exercise in one study (xviii). Other experts write that tart cherry juice – which has many antioxidant and anti-inflammatory plant compounds – may lessen pain and accelerate strength recovery after exercise, and may be beneficial for athletes looking to improve recovery and faster return to competition (xix).
Also known as palmitoylethanolamide, PEA is a type of fatty acid made naturally by the body and found in all cells, tissues and fluids including the brain (it’s also found in foods such as soya beans, peanuts, eggs, flaxseed and milk). Described as an endocannbinoid-like chemical that belongs to a family of fatty acid compounds called amides (xx), PEA is an alternative to CBD, since both substances are thought to have similar properties including the ability to reduce pain and inflammation. However researchers suggest PEA is safer than CBD, since it has been studied more extensively and has a more robust safety profile (xxi) with no known side effects (xx).
Your body naturally increases its production of PEA when your cells are damaged or threatened. But in certain situations – such as when your body is experiencing chronic inflammation – the level of PEA in your cells drops (xx). When this happens, PEA supplements may be helpful. In fact a review of 16 clinical trials and meta-analysis of PEA suggests it does have analgesic actions – in other words it helps to relieve pain (xxii).
Nursing a sports injury takes time — but with these tips, you’ll be back to doing the sports you love, sooner. For more health advice like this, why not visit our health library.
Accident and Emergency Attendances in England - 2013-14. Health & Social Care. January 2015.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sports-injuries/
Mazzotta. MY. Nutrition and wound healing. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 1994;84:456-62.
Levine. M. New concepts in the biology and biochemistry of ascorbic acid. N Engl J Med. 1986;314:892-902.
Jakeman. P, Maxwell. S. Effect of antioxidant vitamin supplementation on muscle function after eccentric exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 1993;67:426-30 Kaminski M, Kaminski R. An effect of ascorbic acid on delayed-onset muscle soreness. Pain. 1992;50:317-21.
DePhillipo NN. et al., Efficacy of Vitamin C Supplementation on Collagen Synthesis and Oxidative Stress After Musculoskeletal Injuries: A Systematic Review. Orthop J Sports Med. 2018 Oct;6(10): 2325967118804544. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6204628/
Lakhan. SE, Ford. CT, Tepper. D, et al. Zingiberaceae extracts for pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr J. 2015 May 14;14:50.
Akbik D. et al., Curcumin as a wound healing agent. Life Sci. 2014 Oct 22;116(1):1-7. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25200875
Simopoulos. AP. Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune disease. J AM Coll Nutr. 2002 Dec;21(6):495-505.
Tortosa-Caparros E. et al., Anti-inflammatory effects of omega 3 and omega 6 polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 2;57(16):3421-3429. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26745681
Maroon. JC, Bost. JW. Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) as an anti-inflammatory: an alternative to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for discogenic pain. Surg Neurol. 2006 Apr;65(4):326-31.
Seligman. B. Bromelain: an anti-inflammatory agent. Angiology. 1962;13:508-510.
Izaka. KI, Yamada. M, Yamada. KIT. Gastrointestinal absorption and antiinflammatory effect of bromelain. Jpn J Pharmacol. 1972;22:519-534.
Muhammad. A., Ahmad T., Therapeutic uses of pineapple-extracted bromelain in surgical care - A review. J Pak Med Assoc. 2017 Jan;67(1):121-125. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28065968
Blonstein. JL. Control of swelling in boxing injuries. Practitioner. 1969;203:206.
Ostojic. SM, Arsic. M, Prodanovic. S, et al.Glucosamine administration in athletes: effects on recovery of acute knee injury. Res Sports Med. 2007;15:113-124.
Gobel. H, Heinze. A, Ingwersen. M, et al.Effects of Harpagophytum procumbens LI 174 (devil's claw) on sensory, motor und vascular muscle reagibility in the treatment of unspecific back pain. Schmerz. 2001;15:10-18.
Gagnier JJ. et al., Herbal Medicine for Low Back Pain: A Cochrane Review. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2016 Jan;41(2):116-33. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26630428
Connolly. DA, McHugh. MP, Padilla-Zakour. OI, et al.Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med. 2006;40:679-83; discussion 683.
Vitale. KC, Hueglin. S, Broad. E. Tart Cherry Juice in Athletes; A Literature Review and Commentary. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017 Jul/Aug;16(4):230-239.Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28696985
Clayton P. et al., Palmitoylethanolamide: A Natural Compound for Health Management. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 May;22(10): 5305. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8157570/
Clayton P. et al., Palmitoylethanolamide: A Potential Alternative to Cannabidiol. J Diet Suppl. 2021 Nov;28;1-26. Available online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19390211.2021.2005733
Gabrielsson . L, Mattsson. S, Fowler. CJ. Palmitoylethanolamide for the treatment of pain: pharmacokinetics, safety and efficacy. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2003;110:359-362.Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5094513/
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.