HomeHealthArchivesMar 2004


The Injured Athlete

The most recent figures on sports injuries, as reported by American Health magazine, show 2.6 million Americans limping, groaning or being carried off fields, courts and streets each year.

Your odds of joining them are best if you're a cyclist and worst if your sport is walking-although even the average walker gets hurt once every four years. (The average runner, in comparison, is injured about once every five months.) The typical injury is to the joints: knees, feet, back, shoulders, ankles, and hips.

Sports injuries fall into two categories: acute injuries and overuse injuries. Acute injuries happen all at once. They include bruises, broken bones, pulled muscles and strained joints. Overuse injuries, on the other hand, sneak up on you; they're caused by repetitive motions like swinging a tennis racket or pounding along the pavement, each repetition making the problem a little worse.

If the pain or swelling from an injury is significant, call a doctor. If you decide to treat it yourself, American Health suggests following the RICE model: Rest, ice, compression and elevation. For acute injuries, rest is almost involuntary-the first reaction is usually to take the weight off. Overuse injuries are harder to rest, though, because they appear so gradually we tend to believe we can "work through them." Remember that the sooner you acknowledge an overuse injury and begin to treat it, the faster you'll heal.

After rest, if the skin is not broken, apply ice, but only intermittently. (Never apply heat.) Ten to 20 minutes of ice at a time, no more than once an hour, is usually sufficient. Next comes compression, usually in the form of an elastic bandage, and then elevation, propping the injury on a pillow above the level of your heart.

You're doomed to repeat an overuse injury unless you figure out what caused it, and that usually takes the help of a medical professional. To pick a specialist, start at a sports medicine center, if there's one in your area. If you can, rely on recommendations from friends. It's too easy to hang out a shingle as a sports therapist knowing very little.