You don’t have to be training for the Olympics to pull a muscle. Here’s how to treat the most common bumps and bruises, and when to call a doctor.
Weekend warriors, high school sports stars and first-time half-marathon runners, take note: While all that exercise you’re getting does a body good, you could be putting yourself at risk for a sports-related injury.
Jack Chou, MD, a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, explains the most common sports injuries—and how you can avoid them.
“The most common injuries we see are sprains and strains, especially to the ankle, knee area and back,” Chou says. Often confused with a broken bone, a sprain is actually an injury to the ligaments, while a strain is a tear in the muscle fiber or tendon (earning the name “pulled muscle”). These ligaments and muscle fibers are like springs—they can lengthen and return to their normal size up to a certain point, but if they’re pulled too far out of normal range, injury occurs.
When to see a doctor: “If it’s a sudden onset injury and you can see significant deformity or loss of use, go in for a visit right away,” Chou says. Your doctor can help determine a stretching regimen that will prevent loss of flexibility and strength and help you avoid reinjury.
The side-to-side motion that often comes along with sports such as soccer, football and baseball can cause strain of the inner thigh muscles, also known as the groin. As with any muscle strain, a pulled groin typically can be treated at home, Chou says. “Use the RICE method for pulled muscles: rest, ice, compression, elevation. But be careful not to compress too tightly—you don’t want to compromise blood flow,” he says.
When to see a doctor: If there is significant swelling with the groin pull, it’s time to visit your physician.
Common in runners, a stress fracture occurs when muscles become fatigued and are unable to absorb added shock. Eventually, the fatigued muscle transfers the overload of stress to the bone, causing a tiny crack. Most stress fractures occur in the feet or lower legs and too often go ignored, Chou says. “While they will heal by themselves eventually, it’s important to give yourself time to rest,” he says. “And when you do get back to pounding the pavement, make sure you have proper shoes—anything too worn or inflexible puts you at risk.”
When to see a doctor: If the pain lasts longer than a week, schedule an appointment. You may need to wear a protective boot for a few weeks to let the bones heal.
Although not as common as twisted ankles or muscle overuse, traumatic brain injuries are nothing to take lightly. “In almost every team sport, athletes are susceptible to concussion—not just football,” Chou says. It’s next to impossible to avoid them altogether, but it is important to make sure you prevent more than one hit to the head in a single game or practice. “A general rule of thumb is that two hits to the brain in any game is not a good thing,” Chou says. So if you have any suspicion that you suffered head trauma, head to the sidelines. (If it’s your kid playing, see to it that he or she does the same.)
When to see a doctor: If you get knocked out, feel disoriented after a hit or lose consciousness, take a timeout and go to the doctor—or emergency department—right away.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to working out is doing too much too soon, says Jack Chou, MD, a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Instead of going all in, he says, work in increments of 10. If you want to run, start slow with a manageable distance like a mile, then increase it by 10 percent each week. If you’re weight training, try to find a set of barbells that will allow you to add 10 percent each week (so: 10 pounds this week, 11 pounds next week). Switching from cycling to running? Start with half of your normal workout time and increase it by (you guessed it) 10 percent each week.
“Working up slowly will help you avoid getting hurt while still getting better,” Chou says.