Sports medicine doctor gives tips to prevent spring sports injuries

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April 8, 2022

As the weather warms up, many of us are returning to the outdoors and participating in the sports we love. Whether you love running, baseball, tennis, lacrosse or another spring sport, I encourage you to get outdoors and enjoy your favorite activities. However, as a sports medicine physician, I know that with the fun of spring sports comes spring sport injuries. During this time of year, I treat many ankle sprains, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, tennis elbows and shin splints.

If you’re about to hit the track, the softball field or run a race, take steps to prevent sports injuries and seek treatment if you do get hurt.

How to prevent sports injuries

Whether you work out regularly or have stepped away from sports and exercise, one of the most important pieces of advice I can offer is not to do too much too fast. If you ramp up your activity level too quickly, you will put yourself at high risk for an overuse injury, such as tennis elbow or shin splints.

Devise a game plan for steady progression toward your goal. If you are a runner, that may mean to gradually increase your mileage and intensity of the run. If you lift weights, that may mean slowly increasing the amount you lift and the number of repetitions until you reach your goal.

I also encourage patients to think about the acronym SEEDS: Planting healthy “seeds” can help prevent injury. Here is how it works:

S: Sleep. Make sure you get enough sleep, preferably 7-9 hours a night. Practice good sleep hygiene: no screens an hour before bed, keep the bedroom cool and dark, and go to bed and wake up the same time every day.

E: Eat healthy. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates will ensure your body has the fuel it needs to stay healthy while you work out.

E: Equipment. Ensure you have the right equipment for your sport. That includes proper footwear. If you are a runner, change your sneakers every 250-500 miles to ensure proper shock absorption. If you have flat feet, consider orthotics/shoe inserts. For other sports, make sure whatever equipment you need is in good shape before you use it. Helmets should fit snugly.

D: Drink water. Aim for at least 64 ounces of water a day and even more if you vigorously engage in sports and exercise.

S: Stretch. Stretching improves flexibility, which lowers your chances of injuries. Stretch as part of your warmup and cool down routines.

I also like to add another very important S: Strength training. Strengthen your core, hips, and extremities. Using resistance bands and light weights are great ways to do strength training.

Children and adolescents also should get sports physicals before the start of their season. During this exam, we screen for a variety of issues and check the heart, lungs, muscles, joints and more. We also look for risk factors that may cause a heart problem during physical activity.

Common spring sports injuries

Sometimes despite doing everything right, athletes still get injured. One common injury is tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis. You don’t need to play tennis to be afflicted with this condition. It also affects those who play racquetball, badminton and squash as well as rock climbers and rowers. The condition occurs when the tendons that connect the forearm muscles to the elbow become inflamed.

Achilles tendon injuries are also extremely common. This tendon connects the calf muscles to the calcaneus (heel bone). Athletes at risk for Achilles tendon injuries are those who do a lot of running or jumping, or those who do activities on an incline, such as a hill. These activities can lead to inflammation and repetitive stress on the tendon. Proper footwear is extremely important in preventing Achilles tendon injuries; shoes should have proper arch support. There is a range of treatments, including rest, walking boots to immobilize the ankle, physical therapy and surgery in severe cases.

ACL tears are common, particularly among women, children and adolescents. The ACL is a ligament in the knee that keeps the knee stable. The mechanism of injury might involve changing directions quickly, stopping suddenly, landing from a jump incorrectly, or a direct blow to the knee. It’s a common injury for athletes who play basketball, soccer or lacrosse, which are sports associated with cutting/pivoting, jumping, and decelerating. Non-surgical treatment is an option for those with low activity levels, but in most cases, surgery is the recommended treatment.

Other common spring sports injuries include:

  • Ankle sprains, particularly among soccer players and runners. You may notice ankle swelling and bruising and have trouble walking.
  • Runner’s knee, or patellofemoral syndrome. The pain is felt in the front of the knee. With this condition, the patella (kneecap) doesn’t move up and down properly when the knee is bent or strait.
  • Shin splints. This is pain felt on the shin due to stress on the tibia (lower leg bone). It is a common problem for those who run or play basketball.

For many injuries, a good first step is to follow the RICE acronym. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. Use ice for about 15-20 minutes at a time every few hours for the first day or two after an injury. Compression means wrapping the injury. To elevate, raise the affected area above the level of the heart to reduce swelling.

However, if you don’t see improvement after two days, reach out to your physician to discuss next steps. In some cases, you should seek immediate medical attention following an injury. If you can’t bear weight, can’t walk, or hear a pop or a crack, get checked out right away.

At Kaiser Permanente, we take a team-based approach to treating sports injuries. Depending on the type and severity of the injury, the team may include a primary care sports medicine physician, orthopedist, and physical therapist. School athletic trainers also play a vital role.

About the author

Jennifer Gourdin, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with training in sports medicine. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Silver Spring Medical Center.