Sports Injury Prevention and Treatment Advice

Soccer player icing ankle
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When possible, preventing a sport injury is better than having to recover from one. The best way to avoid injuries is to be physically and mentally prepared for your sport.

The first step is learning about how to prevent injuries and following basic injury prevention advice. You'll also want to know what to do if you do get hurt—from treating an injury at home to knowing when it's time to see your doctor.

Preventing Overuse Injuries

To prevent overuse injuries, you'll want to avoid weekend warrior syndrome and balance training with adequate periods of rest.

Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Wear and use proper gear for your sport, including helmets, pads, shoes, sunglasses, gloves and layered clothing where appropriate.
  2. Understand the rules and follow them. They are in place for a reason.
  3. Warm up slowly before activity. This is especially important in sports like basketball and soccer that require quick, dynamic movements.
  4. Always use proper body mechanics in sports involving repetitive stress to the upper extremities (tennis, baseball, golf).
  5. Listen to your body. Pain is a warning sign of injury. Don't work through pain—instead, stop or slow your activity until the pain subsides.
  6. Use specific skills training to prepare for your sport. Work with a certified coach or instructor if you aren't sure how to best train.
  7. Cross train for overall conditioning. Cross training allows specific muscles to rest and can alleviate boredom in your routine.

Immediate Injury Treatment

If you suffer an acute injury, such as a strain or pulled muscle, immediately stop the activity. Next, use the R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) method of treatment.

The R.I.C.E. Method

  1. Rest prevents further injury and allows for healing.
  2. Ice helps with swelling and pain. Icing an injury constricts blood vessels and limits the bleeding in the injured area.
  3. Compression also limits swelling and provides support to an injured joint.
  4. Elevation uses gravity to improve swelling by reducing blood flow to the injured area.

You should start using the R.I.C.E. method as soon as possible after an injury occurs. Immediately apply ice to the area, using a sheet or towel to protect your skin.

Next, wrap an elastic bandage around the ice and injured area. It should be snug, but you don't want to wrap it so tightly that it cuts off the blood supply.

Leave the ice on for about 15 minutes. You can repeat every three hours throughout the day.

Once the swelling decreases, you can start doing gentle range of motion exercises for the affected joint.

When to See A Doctor

Most acute injuries can be treated with the R.I.C.E. method, but some will need to treated by a physician. Call your doctor if:

  • You have severe pain in a joint or bone, or the pain persists for more than two weeks.
  • You have pain that radiates to another area of the body
  • You have point tenderness (you can cause pain by pressing on a specific area, but pain is not produced at the same point on the other side of the body).
  • You have any injury to a joint that produces significant swelling. If left untreated, joint injuries can become permanent.
  • You cannot move the injured part of your body.
  • You have persistent numbness, tingling, or weakness in the injured area.
  • Your injury hasn't healed after three weeks.
  • You have an infection with pus, red streaks, a fever, and/or swollen lymph nodes.

Recovery From Injuries

Healing from sports injuries can take time. However, you don't necessarily want to be totally immobile if you don't have to be. Research suggests that much rest and not enough movement can hinder the healing process rather than help it.

Bone, tendon, ligament, and muscle all require some degree of loading to stimulate healing. 

Optimum loading refers to starting gentle motions after a short rest period following an injury and gradually progressing the level of exercise to improve range of motion and strength. 

A new recommendation for injury care is P.O.L.I.C.E., which stands for: Protection, Optimum Loading, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

Using optimum loading also helps with blood supply and swelling. Healing is dependent on a good blood supply, which moves nutrients, oxygen, and infection-fighting cells to the damaged area and works on repairing it.

Ultimately, healing time varies from person to person and can take longer with each decade of life. That said, athletes tend to have a better blood supply and heal faster than those with chronic illness, smokers, or people with sedentary lifestyles.

If you're in reasonably good shape, these are the average times required to heal from common injuries.

  • Fractured finger or toe: 3 to 5 weeks
  • Fractured clavicle: 6 to 10 weeks
  • Sprained ankle: 5 days (minor) or 3 to 6 weeks (severe)
  • Mild contusion: 5 days
  • Pulled muscles: A few days to several weeks (depends on the severity and location of the injury)
  • Mild shoulder separation: 7 to 14 days.

Returning to Sports After an Injury

Healing time for any injury can be longer if you return to activity too soon. You should never exercise the injured part if you have pain during rest.

When the injured part no longer hurts at rest, start exercising it slowly with simple range of motion exercises.

If you feel pain, stop and rest. Over time, you can return to activity at a very low intensity, and build up to your previous level. Increase your exercise intensity only when you can do so without pain.

If you continue to have difficulty getting out of pain, improving function, and ultimately returning to your sport, it may be in your best interest to seek a sports physical therapist to help you rehab back to your sport and prevent future injuries.

You may find that the injured part is now more susceptible to re-injury and you should pay close attention to any warning signs of overdoing it.

Soreness, aches, and tension must be acknowledged or you may end up with a worse injury than you started with. Practicing injury prevention and taking the time you need to rest and heal will help prevent a more serious injury or a prolonged healing time.

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.

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.