Gym rat or weekend warrior? Here's some advice for sports injury prevention.

In this article: 

  • Advice on sports injury prevention from Swedish expert, Troy Henning, D.O., team physician for the Seattle Sounders FC. 

  • Some of the most common sports injuries and how they are treated.

  • Staying active can help prevent injuries and help us stay fitter longer. 

The summer weather is here.  It’s prime time for weekend warriors, summer runners and other amateur athletes. Many of us go into hibernation mode during the Big Dark, leaving our exercise routines behind; others keep going— logging some soggy and chilly miles or hours in the gym.

Whether you’re someone who is maintaining your routine or getting back out on the road or into the gym, you need to be careful about injuries and strains, so you can continue to enjoy the long-term benefits of exercise and fitness.

We spoke with Troy Henning, D.O., a sports medicine doctor at Swedish Spine, Sports and Musculoskeletal Medicine, and head team physician for the Seattle Sounders FC, about a few tips and tricks that can help you prevent common injuries and determine the best treatment options should you need it.

“There are a few common injuries that often get my patients down when they are on the go,” says Dr. Henning.

What are some common sports injuries and how do they occur? 

Common sports injuries include strains (injury to muscles and tendons) and joint sprains (ligament injury) and fractures.  Muscular strains are more common in sports that require sprinting such as soccer, ultimate frisbee, basketball and football.  While sprains and fractures can occur in these sports, other contact/collision sports such as wrestling and volleyball or high velocity sports such as skiing/snowboarding and cycling/mountain biking. In general these types of injures are a result of a sudden unexpected load on the tissue such as would occur with a fall/crash or collision with an object or another player.  These forces stretch or load the tissue beyond their ability to absorb the force thereby leading to tearing/breaking of tissue.   Commonly we see an increase rate of these types of injures with winter sports when the snow/slope conditions become more challenging (icy or heavy/wet snow).  Generalized fatigue with the activity or sport also increase the risk of injury in general as the majority of patients report sustaining an injury under these circumstances.

Chronic injuries that occur over a period of time include medial tibial stress syndrome/shin splints, patellofemoral pain syndrome/patella tendinopathy/jumpers knee, tennis/golfers elbow, etc. are more related to relative training errors.  Typically this would involve ramping up the intensity and or duration of the activity too quickly.  Sometimes there are also relatively weak or tight muscles and tissue that can make our body less tolerant to repetitively loading that would be seen in recreational sports.  A common theme I see in these types of injures is an over reliance of use of sports or activities to maintain strength/conditioning in place of engaging in strength/conditioning exercises to better prepare them for there sport or activity.   

Sprains & Fractures

The most common injuries in the wrist and ankle are sprains and fractures. Throwing, twisting, weight-bearing, and impact can put you at risk for a wrist injury. Ankle sprains and fractures are typically caused by making a fast, shifting movement with your foot planted on the ground.

“In most cases, I recommend the RICE approach: rest for around 48 hours; ice the injured area to reduce swelling (use a pack wrapped in a towel); compress with an elastic ACE wrap; and elevate the injury above heart level,” says Dr. Henning “However, if a patient is experiencing symptoms, such as severe pain at the site of injury, swelling, difficulty moving the joint or a popping or tearing sensation during the initial injury, they should contact their doctor or visit an urgent care center for further evaluation.”

More serious injuries will likely be treated with a splint, boot or cast. The healing process can take up to six weeks. Surgery may also be required for some types of fractures or chronic ankle instability.

What is the recovery like for these types of injures. How might patients be limited? What activities can they still do in order to maintain some fitness or get in movement?

  • ACL Tears

The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is one of the major ligaments in your knee that helps with stabilization when turning or planting. ACL injuries take place during cutting or pivoting movements. The hallmark of a torn ACL is a distinct popping noise and your knee may give out. The affected knee will begin to swell and become stiff between 2-12 hours after the injury. People often experience pain or tenderness, and discomfort while standing or walking.

Treatment for ACL injuries depend on the severity of the tear, as well as your age and activity level. Non-surgical treatment such as physical therapy or using a brace may be sufficient however most individuals will need reconstructive surgery. In all cases, it is important to consult with your provider as soon as possible if you suspect a problem.  Once the initial pain and swelling have improved you can begin strengthen and conditioning exercises using pain and moments of knee instability as your guide.  If the knee pain is not improving over the first 2-3 weeks then you may have a more significant injury that should be evaluated by a physician prior to reengaging in exercise or sports.

What sports are most prone to ACL injuries? How can we prevent them or minimize this type of injury?

The majority of ACL tears occur in sports that require sudden changes in direction (running/cutting sports such as soccer/basketball/football) or those that involve jumping (volleyball and basketball).  ACL injury exercise programs have been developed and have been shown to reduce the rate of these injures if the exercise program is performed on a regular basis.  Women/girls sustain ACL injuries at a higher rate than men/boys.  There are numerous factors that may lead to this and include discrepancies in biomechanics, strength, hormonal and anatomical differences about the hip and knee.

  • Rotator Cuff Tears

The rotator cuff is a group of four small muscles and tendons in the shoulder that provide stability to the shoulder and mobility to the arm. A torn rotator cuff can happen in two ways.

An acute tear happens suddenly, such as when you fall on an outstretched hand or lift a heavy object. Tears can also happen slowly over time. As we age, the tendons of the rotator cuff become weaker and gradually fray.

Symptoms of a rotator cuff tear include pain with movement of the shoulder and tenderness to touch. Inability to lift even household objects out to the side or overhead is also typical.

Another indicator is a prior history of shoulder tendonitis or bursitis as this would point to excessive stress on the rotator cuff over time. Treatment can be conservative for some tears, including physical therapy to improve shoulder mobility and progressively strengthen the cuff muscles. However, the majority of large or complete tears will likely require surgery to restore shoulder function.

  • Meniscus Tears

The meniscus helps to absorb shock, as well as stabilize the knee joint. A lot of your body weight is distributed through the meniscus when you move, especially when performing athletic activity. Meniscus tears are caused by twisting and compression that can occur with such activities as running or jumping.

What's the difference between a meniscus tear and an ACL injury?

If you have a meniscus tear, you may hear a popping sound or feel a tear or rip in the knee. Swelling generally occurs within a few minutes to a couple of hours and your knee might feel like it is out of place. In less acute injuries, swelling may not occur. Your knee might feel like it’s catching during movement, or like it’s “out of place”. If you suspect you may have a meniscus tear, make an appointment with your provider right away.

Initial treatment of a meniscal tear is typically nonsurgical, and may include RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation). If the symptoms do not improve, you may need surgery.

  • Prevention

While the majority of these sports injuries are due to circumstance and pre-existing injuries, there are precautions that you can take to help prevent them from happening to you:

Maintaining a lifestyle involving consistent exercise; Warming up and stretching prior to rigorous activities; and cooling down and slowly relaxing after exercise.

How can  staying active help prevent injuries?  

Classical maintenance strength and conditioning exercise helps maintain health in our muscles, tendons and joints.  These have been shown to increase activity tolerance and slow the progression joint disease such as arthritis.  Imbalances in an exercise program, such as only engaging in conditioning, can lead to gradual overloading of the bones/joints/tendons and as a result cause injury.    

Learn more and find a provider

Whether you're an elite or amateur athlete, our experts at Swedish Sports, Spine and Musculoskeletal Medicine can help you. Give us a call at 425-498-2272. 

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Stay safe while exercising in summer heat: Tips from a Swedish sports doc

Swedish wants to help you get the care you need, when you need it

Fun in the sun? Remember to protect your skin!

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

Whether you're interested in physical fitness, an athlete looking for performance tips, or it's time for a full or partial replacement of knees, shoulders or hips, the Swedish Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Team is committed to providing you with expert advice on how to prevent injury, plan for physical activity and recover from orthopedic procedures. Our mission is to help you live the active lifestyle you want.

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