Sports Injury First Aid Treatment

Running injury
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Accidents happen, especially during sports. While it is possible to limit the number and severity of injuries with prevention strategies, one wrong step or a collision on the field can result in a sudden and painful injury. When this happens, be prepared to act quickly. Ideally, you will have access to a well-stocked first aid kit or have medical help nearby. 

Different Types of Sports Injuries

There are many possible types of injuries that can occur while playing sports. It's a good idea for anyone involved in sports to be familiar with treatment for some of the more common sports injuries. These injuries may be classified as acute or chronic.

  • Acute injuries are those injuries that occur suddenly.
  • Chronic injuries happen over time and are also commonly called overuse injuries.

Because chronic injuries happen over time, it is more likely that you (or those around you) will be able to seek appropriate medical care to manage them. For example, if you begin to experience knee pain while running, you might make an appointment with your healthcare provider or physical therapist.

But acute injuries generally require first aid—immediate treatment that is provided until medical help arrives. If you participate in sports (especially those with a high rate of acute injuries, such as football or wrestling), it is important to have knowledge of first aid procedures. You should also keep supplies on hand such as ice packs, bandages, a finger splint, hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes, and a breathing barrier to provide CPR.

First Aid for Acute Sports Injuries

The most common acute sports-related injuries vary by age. For example, younger athletes are at higher risk for fractures and dislocations. Concussions are also more commonly reported in younger athletes, especially those who participate in contact sports such as football, rugby, ice hockey, and wrestling (for males) and soccer and basketball (for females).

According to government sources, the most common acute sports injuries include:

  • Dislocations
  • Fractures
  • Knee injuries
  • Rotator cuff injuries
  • Sprains and strains

The primary goal of sports injury first aid is to stop the activity and prevent further injury or damage. You may also need to manage certain symptoms until medical help arrives. Common symptoms of acute injuries include:

  • Bone or joint that is visibly out of place
  • Cuts and abrasions
  • Extreme leg or arm weakness
  • Joint weakness or inability to move a joint
  • Not being able to place weight on a leg, knee, ankle, or foot
  • Sudden pain and swelling

If you or someone near you gets injured while playing sports or participating in any fitness activity, the first course of action is always to stop the activity. If you are helping another person in an emergency, be sure that the scene is safe for you to enter, then call 911. From there, you may provide different measures based on the type of injury.


One of the most common areas where an athlete may experience an acute dislocation is in the shoulder. The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body. When the head of the humerus (the upper arm bone) is forced out of the shoulder socket, dislocation occurs. You may notice that the joint looks out of place, is bruised, swollen, or difficult to move.

If you notice dislocation in this or any other joint, experts advise that you immobilize the joint and do not try to manipulate it. You should also treat the area with ice, use ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain, and seek immediate medical care.


A fracture is a break in a bone that is often the result of acute trauma. If the bone breaks through the skin, it is called an open fracture. Fractures that occur over time are called stress fractures, but these are not acute injuries. A bone fracture may cause intense pain, deformity, bruising or swelling, and difficulty moving.

If you suspect a fracture, always seek immediate medical care. Limit movement and mobilize the area with a splint if one is available. Elevate the limb and apply ice to reduce bruising or swelling. If the skin has broken, try to cover the wound to avoid infection. Apply sterile bandages if available.

A medical examination will determine if the bone is broken or if another acute injury (such as dislocation) has occurred.

Knee Injuries

There are many different types of knee injuries that can occur as a result of participation in sports, but acute knee injuries often include meniscus, tendon, or ligament injuries. Symptoms can include a popping or clicking noise, pain, weakness, or a buckling sensation.

Cold and compression are often applied for acute sports injuries. The PRICE method is a simple way to remember how to apply the treatment. PRICE stands for Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. It's also known as the RICE method, but RICE does not include "protection," which is an important step for on-field management of injuries.

PRICE Method

  • Protection: In this case, protection means stopping the activity immediately and protecting the injured part from additional damage.
  • Rest: Rest the area to allow the tissues to heal.
  • Ice: Applying cold therapy (ice or an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel) to an acute injury reduces swelling and pain. Ice is a vaso-constrictor. It causes the blood vessels to narrow and limits inflammation at the injury site. Apply cold to the affected area every two hours for no more than 20 minutes at a time. Allow the skin temperature to return to normal before icing it again. You can ice an acute injury several times a day.
  • Compression: Compression of an acute injury is perhaps the next most important immediate treatment. By quickly wrapping the injured body part with an elastic bandage or wrap, you help keep swelling to a minimum. If possible, it's helpful to apply ice to the injured area over the compression wrap to limit swelling.
  • Elevation: Elevating the injured area is another way to reduce the blood flow and swelling in the area.

Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains are soft tissue injuries that may occur to different areas of the body, including the knee, the ankle, or the elbow. But the tissues involved are slightly different.

  • A sprain is an injury (such as a stretch or a tear) to a ligament, which is tissue that connects two or more bones at a joint.
  • A strain involves a stretched or torn muscle or tendon (tissue that connects muscle to bone).

If you experience a sprain or strain, you may not be able to determine which injury has occurred because symptoms are similar. Symptoms of a sprain include pain, swelling, and limited use of the joint. Symptoms of a strain include muscle spasms, cramping, and the symptoms of a sprain.

If you suspect a strain or sprain, stop the activity that caused the injury. Then use the PRICE method to reduce pain and swelling and seek medical care. Depending on your specific injury, a healthcare provider may advise that you use crutches or another form of assistance while the area is healing. You may also be advised to work with a physical therapist.

Soft Tissue Injury Step-By-Step

  1. Stop the activity immediately.
  2. Wrap the injured part in a compression bandage.
  3. Apply ice to the injured part for 10 to 15 minutes. Let the area warm completely before applying ice again (to prevent frostbite).
  4. Elevate the injured part to reduce swelling.
  5. See a physician for a proper diagnosis of any serious injury.

Rotator Cuff Injuries

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons in the shoulder that wrap around the head of the humerus (the upper end of the arm bone). While wear in the rotator cuff can often occur with age, when a large rotator cuff tear occurs, the tendon attachment to the head of the humerus is not as strong. This can be the result of an acute injury or may be caused by chronic use.

When caused by an acute injury (such as a fall), rotator cuff injuries cause intense pain. You might also experience a snapping sensation and immediate weakness in your arm.

If you suspect a rotator cuff injury, you should stop what you are doing and rest the arm. Continuing to use the shoulder joint could cause additional injury. If you experience symptoms that last for more than one week, contact your healthcare provider for evaluation and diagnosis.

Cuts and Abrasions

Cuts and abrasions can easily occur as the result of a fall while running, biking, rollerblading, or participating in any fitness activity. Bleeding or open wounds can vary from minor scrapes, blisters, and small punctures to more serious lacerations and arterial wounds that can be life-threatening.

Abrasion-type wounds can be washed with soap and water. Contaminated abrasions (scrapes that have particles of debris embedded in them) may need to be treated in a hospital with irrigation under pressure in order to remove foreign particles. Once the wound is washed and bandaged, you can also apply ice and pressure to manage any related bruising or swelling.

Deeper cuts may need medical attention. Immediate first aid can include applying direct pressure, followed by elevation and application of a pressure bandage. If you are unable to control the bleeding, seek immediate medical care.

If someone near you is injured, it's important to take proper protective measures to avoid disease transmission. Personal protective equipment, such as latex or rubber gloves afford protection when controlling bleeding, performing bandaging, and when handling soiled or bloody bandages or instruments.


Sports-related concussion is becoming one of the most common types of mild traumatic brain injury among youth who participate in organized sports. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, symptoms are not always obvious and may not present immediately after the injury. Symptoms include:

  • Balance problems, dizziness
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Difficulty speaking and communicating
  • Drowsiness
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Memory loss
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you suspect that you, your child, or someone close by has experienced a concussion, there are basic steps you can take to stay safe. Experts advise that for a moderate to severe head injury, you should call 911 right away.

If you are with someone who has experienced a head injury, stay nearby if they are unconscious to begin CPR if necessary. Then stabilize the head and neck and stop any bleeding with a clean cloth. Do not apply pressure with the cloth if you suspect a skull fracture. If the person begins vomiting, roll them onto their side.

Treatment for Chronic Injuries

While the most dramatic sports injuries are acute, the majority of sports injuries come on gradually. Pain from overuse injuries tends to have vague symptoms that develop slowly. What begins as a small, nagging ache or pain can grow into a debilitating injury if it isn't recognized and treated early.

Treating overuse injuries requires rest and reducing exercise intensity, frequency, and duration. Icing an overuse injury can also help reduce inflammation and pain. For more serious overuse injuries, physical therapy, over-the-counter (OTC) medications, and complete rest may be necessary.

Returning After an Injury

After you've treated your injury, what comes next? Most athletes want to know how soon they can return to their sport. This answer tends to be different for everyone because each athlete and each injury is unique.

Returning to sports too soon can increase your risk of re-injury or developing a chronic problem that will lead to a longer recovery. Waiting too long, however, can lead to unnecessary fitness declines (deconditioning). It's smart to work together with your healthcare provider to make a plan for returning to play.

A Word From Verywell

Treating any injury right away is important, so it is good to review common first aid methods to ensure you're prepared and know what to do in case of an emergency. If you are unsure about the severity of a sports injury, play it safe and seek medical care. An ounce of caution may prevent a manageable condition from getting out of control.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.