January 30th, 2012
When you start working out to improve your body's strength and overall health, you do a wonderful thing for yourself. But on the other hand, you open yourself up to potential athletic injuries and other problems that pop up for athletes. Many of these issues are much less likely to happen when you live a healthy lifestyle and practice your sport or activity safely. And having good form and using the right equipment will also help you get the most benefit out of your activities, so why would you want to skip out on that anyway? Of course, even when you're doing all the other stuff right, accidents like broken bones or torn ligaments can still happen and rain on your parade. Accidents aside, to prevent athletic health worries, there are a few things you should make a part of your regular routine.
Diet. Maintaining a healthy diet will ensure that your body has all the nutrients it needs to work its best, lowering your risk for injury. What that diet consists of will depend on your fitness goals and your current weight and fitness level. For weight loss, you want fewer calories, but ones that come from nutritious foods and drinks. If you're in shape and are starting to train for an event, you'll probably have to up your calorie intake, but not by eating more Big Macs. Depending on your sport, it might mean more carbs, protein, and/or vitamins. And it goes without saying that you need to stay hydrated, both during athletic activity and in daily life.
Gear. You also need to practice your sport/activity/whatever in such a way as to reduce your risk of injuries. Let's start with the sort of gear you use. Helmets, knee pads, etc., are highly recommended for some athletics. You may think you look like a wimp, but you'll be singing a different tune if you end up with a concussion someday. Then there's type of clothing and footwear. There's a reason nobody works out in jeans. Chafing galore. Attire differs for pretty much every activity, so go with what's comfortable and makes sense. Shoes should fit you well and will need to be replaced every so often. They may feel comfy, but those old sneakers probably don't absorb shock as well as a new pair will. And the duct tape holding them together might affect their grip.
Performance. Then there's the way you perform your activity. Always warm up and cool down, use equipment properly, and have good form. Pushing yourself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but listen to your body. If it hurts real bad, it's trying to tell you something. Jamming five days worth of activity into your one free morning all week is a recipe for disaster. Increase the intensity and length of your workouts gradually, don't just jump in. If you practice a well-rounded athletic routine, including strengthening, stretching, and aerobic exercise, you'll better your athletic performance and lower your risk for overuse injuries.
Types of Common Sports Injuries
Sprains and Strains. These are two very similar musculature injuries, with sprains pertaining to ligaments and strains to muscles or tendons. Ligaments are the connective tissue between bones, and tendons connect muscles and bones to each other. Hopefully I don't have to explain what those last two are. These types of injuries occur when the tissue in question can't support the sudden application of force from a fall, overstretching, or simply just moving wrong, like if you roll your ankle. Sprains and strains most commonly happen in joint areas like the ankles, wrists, and knees. Symptoms include pain (duh); swelling; loss of range of motion, strength, or stability; and bruising. They can occur in varying degrees of severity, and you can seek medical care for any of them, but the mild ones can also be treated at home. Severe symptoms, on the other hand, should definitely be treated by a doctor.
Tears. This injury is pretty self-explanatory, as it's exactly what it sounds like. The next step up from sprains and strains is the tearing of tendons or ligaments, which can occur in varying degrees. Tears can be a result of both overuse and direct trauma, whenever the tissue just can't hold up to the pressure it's under and ruptures. Common areas for tearing are the knee, shoulder, and ankle. Symptoms are similar to that of sprains and strains, and serious tears come along with serious pain. Tears generally require physical therapy and sometimes surgery.
Fractures and Bony Injuries. When you think of injuries to bones, you probably think of a broken bone, but there can be much more to it than just that. There are hairline fractures and complete breaks, even to the point of open fractures, where the broken bone actually breaks through the skin. Gross. There are also dislocations. All of these things are very painful, especially those last couple, and you should be able to recognize both of them when they happen. "I can see my wrist bone" and "My shoulder isn't in place anymore" are pretty big giveaways and you should get your butt to an emergency room ASAP. Minor stress fractures usually occur in the legs and feet and are the result of excessive amounts of repeated pressure, like with running. They can be tougher to discover, and usually don't require extensive care. Bony injuries nearly always require medical attention, although not always emergency attention.
Athletic Injuries and Home versus Professional Treatment
Whenever something out of the ordinary is going on with your body, the first thing most people wonder is, "Do I have to go in for this?" The line of when to see a doctor can be fuzzy with minor sports injuries, so here are a few guidelines to help you decide. First, is it an acute or chronic injury? An acute injury is one that happened suddenly, with immediate pain, swelling, tenderness, the works. Chronic injuries develop from overuse and involve pain when performing your sport/activity and less intense pain when at rest. The severity of these symptoms will be a big indicator of whether or not you need professional care. Severe pain and swelling or being unable to put weight on the injured area are dead giveaways to call your doctor. Knowing which category your injury falls into, chronic or acute, will help your healthcare provider diagnose and treat your problem. Broken bones or dislocations need immediate care, but if those are ruled out, you can always try and treat at home, and go in if the problem doesn't get better. R.I.C.E. is the tried and true method for treating minor aches and pains, and you'll find more information on that in the sidebar. But going to a doctor probably won't make your problem worse, so if you're not sure, playing it safe is never a bad idea.