When Is It Safe to Return to Sports After an Injury?

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If you have had a recent injury one of your main concerns may be how soon you can return to sports. The answer to this question is not always easy because each athlete and each injury are unique. Returning 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 deconditioning.

Proper Conditioning Aids Injury Recovery Time

One thing that can improve your recovery from an injury is a high level of conditioning prior to the injury. Research specifically shows that a history of resistance training helps reduce the risk of injury. Not only will being in great shape help prevent injury and lessen the severity of an injury, but it also has been shown to reduce recovery time.

How to Speed Injury Recovery Time

Phases of Injury Recovery

During the acute recovery phase, most people should be following the P.R.I.C.E. principles (protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation), limiting your activity, allowing yourself time to heal. Previously, this was known as R.I.C.E., but added focus has been given to protecting against future injury.

After the acute recovery phase or in cases of elite athletes who are injured, follow the P.O.L.I.C.E treatment protocol (protect, optimal loading, then ice, rest, and elevation):

  1. Start by protecting the joint. This could mean rest and/or using an assistive device such as crutches.
  2. Apply a compression wrap and ice to keep swelling to a minimum. Ice should be used for about 15 minutes at a time and then removed. Leaving the ice on any longer can risk frost-burn and cause tissue damage.
  3. Rest your foot and keep the leg elevated to decrease the blood flow (and swelling) in the ankle.

Depending on the type and severity of your injury, treatment may also include medical care, surgery, various taping, bracing, or physical therapy treatments.

While your injury heals, try to maintain overall conditioning if possible. Try alternate forms of training such as water running, swimming, cycling, rowing or weight training of the non-injured parts.

Regaining range of motion and strength should be started as soon as possible as directed by your physician or therapist. Use discomfort as a guide and avoid movements that cause pain.

You and your healthcare provider can determine the best time for you to return to physical activity. Once muscle strength and flexibility return you can slowly get back into your sport, working at about 50 to 70 percent max capacity for a few weeks

During this re-entry phase, functional drills for balance, agility, and speed can be added as tolerated.

Guidelines for Safe Return to Sports

  • You are pain-free. If it still hurts, don't use it.
  • You have no swelling. Swelling is a sign of inflammation. If you still have swelling, it is too early to return to sports.
  • You have full range of motion. Compare the injured part with the uninjured opposite side to see if you have regained range of motion.
  • In the case of common foot and ankle injuries, you have full or close to full (80-90%) strength. Again, compare with the uninjured side to see if strength has returned.
  • For lower body injuries - you can perform full weight bearing on injured hips, knees, and ankles without limping. If you are limping, you are still not ready to return to sports. An altered gait can lead to further pain and problems.
  • For upper body injuries - you can perform throwing movements with proper form and no pain

Keep in mind that even when you feel 100% you may have deficits in strength, joint stability, flexibility or skill. Take extra care with the injured part for several months.

These are guidelines only; you should follow your physician's advice regarding return to sports as well as get clearance from a sports physical therapist if you're working with one or have access to one.

3 Sources
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.
  1. Fleck SJ, Falkel JE. Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries. Sports Med. 1986;3(1):61-8. doi:10.2165/00007256-198603010-00006

  2. Dhillon H, Dhillon S, Dhillon MS. Current Concepts in Sports Injury Rehabilitation. Indian J Orthop. 2017;51(5):529-536. doi:10.4103%2Fortho.IJOrtho_226_17

  3. Chinn L, Hertel J. Rehabilitation of ankle and foot injuries in athletes. Clin Sports Med. 2010;29(1):157-67, table of contents. doi:10.1016%2Fj.csm.2009.09.006

Additional Reading
  • Return To Play Criteria. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

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