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It’s official: sport can damage your health. We look at how to exercise safely and common sports injuries.
It’s official: sport can damage your health. But this only happens when you take on too much, too soon and overburden your muscles and joints.
We look at how to exercise safely, plus you’ll find advice on common sports injuries.
How to prevent sports injuries
With a little extra care and patience, the vast majority of sports injuries can be prevented.
- Adequate warm-up can prevent most muscle and tendon strains.
- You should warm up for five minutes, with three minutes of low-intensity activity to increase blood flow in your muscles, followed by two minutes of stretching.
- Make sure you stretch the muscles you are going to use.
2. Start gently
- Starting at a gentle pace allows your heart, lungs and blood pressure to adjust to the increased demands on your body.
- It can also help people with asthma avoid exercise-induced breathlessness and wheezing.
3. Keep within your limits and cool down
- If you push yourself too hard and don’t take time to cool down, within 36 hours you’ll experience stiffness when your unconditioned muscles can’t cope with the accumulated lactic acid and extracellular fluid.
- Stiffness takes at least a week to settle, by which time all benefit of the exercise will have been lost.
- Cool down in the same way as you warm up, with three minutes of low-intensity activity followed by two minutes of stretching.
4. Drink plenty of fluids
- In the warmer summer months, it’s common to become dehydrated when exercising. By the time you start to feel thirsty you are already too dry, so drink regularly.
- According to the Journal of Sports Science, your performance is impaired when you lose just 2 per cent of your body’s water. Losses in excess of 5 per cent can decrease exercise capacity by nearly a third.
- Dehydration also affects mental concentration and skills, so it can have a greater effect on the performance of team games and sports that involve skill and complex decision making.
- Drink plenty of water or isotonic sports drinks whenever you exercise, particularly if you are involved in endurance events.
5. Wear appropriate clothing and protective equipment
- Make sure your sports wear, especially shoes, are in reasonable condition and appropriate for the sport you are doing, for example providing adequate support around the foot in tennis or with the right studs for field games.
- Don’t play contact sports without adequate protection.
- Protect yourself against serious injuries. So wear a cricket box when batting, a helmet and body protector when riding, and knee and elbow pads when skateboarding.
- Wear a lifejacket for watersports like canoeing, waterskiing and windsurfing.
Common sports injuries
- Ankle ligament sprains usually happen as a result of going over on the ankle, with the foot angling inwards and the outer ligament becoming over stretched or torn.
- Rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) is the best treatment for the first few days, along with regular doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen.
- Rehabilitation then aims to restore the muscles involved in balance and stability of the joint over the following weeks.
Muscle tears and strains
- These are among the most common types of injury across all sports.
- The best treatment for simple tears and strains is rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) for 48 to 72 hours.
- A short course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, can help reduce swelling. You should start taking it within two hours of sustaining the injury.
- Don’t get back to activity too quickly and start with gentle exercise at first.
- Blisters are caused by friction against soft skin, for example blisters on hands from rowing.
- If gloves make handling skills a problem, you can use a spray to harden the skin in advance.
- You can also use Vaseline to prevent blisters on the top of your thighs and between toes.
- Don’t burst blisters because the skin over the blister provides a natural protecting covering – opening the blister can allow in infection.
- If blisters have already burst, apply an antiseptic to stop infection.
- Jogger’s nipple is localised dermatitis or inflammation of the skin caused by constant chaffing from vests worn for running.
- You can avoid it by liberally applying Vaseline to the area before exercise, or covering the nipples with a simple dressing.
- To relieve soreness, use a weak steroid cream such as 1 per cent hydrocortisone cream – but only if skin is unbroken.
- Runner’s knee affects people who run outside on pavements and roads.
- It causes discomfort and a grating sensation or sound behind your kneecap.
- It’s caused by inflammation at the back of the kneecap (chondromalacia patellae or patellofemoral syndrome).
- The impact of running on hard surfaces in poor quality shoes is a contributing factor.
- Add Sorbothane inlays to running-shoe heels and run on grass to allow spontaneous healing.
- Back strain is common throughout daily life and especially in sports where prolonged periods are spent with the spine bent forward.
- It’s usually an intermittent and nagging ache that is aggravated by exercise and relieved by heat and rest. Morning stiffness is often a feature.
- In most instances the best treatment is painkillers plus back and abdominal strengthening exercises for gentle rehabilitation.
- If symptoms fail to resolve within a few days or weeks, it suggests other causes such as sciatica due to a prolapsed intervertebral disc. Check out persistent problems with your GP.
- Tennis elbow is a painful inflammation of the tendon at the outer border of the elbow.
- It’s caused by overuse of the forearm muscles from any activity, not just tennis.
- Usual treatments are rest, ice, regular doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and a special elbow support or 20º wrist splint to allow healing.
- Strapping around the lower arm can help to take the tension off the inflamed point where the tendon meets the bone of the elbow, and so reduce pain.
- If these fail, an injection of anaesthetic and cortisone can make a dramatic difference.
- Get a coach to check your technique to prevent recurrence.
- Surgery may be necessary if symptoms last more than a year, injections haven’t worked and there is limited movement.
- This injury is similar to tennis elbow – except the inflammation and tenderness is on the inside of the elbow joint rather than the outside.
- Treatment is applied along similar lines.
- Shin splints are common in any sport involving running.
- Pain is caused by inflammation and microfractures (periostitis) in the surface of the shin bone (tibia).
- Pain is felt when walking and eased by rest.
- The inside border of the shin bone is the most tender area, and too much training too soon is usually the cause.
- Treatment is usually rest, massage and pain relief.
- Investing in good running shoes and using corrective insoles may promote early recovery.
Acute knee injuries
- Torn cartilage happens when the leg is planted on the ground, the knee bears the weight of the body and then twists. Swelling starts within 24 hours and pain is around the joint line. If joints lock, this is because loose cartilage has become trapped between the bones and early referral to a knee specialist is best.
- Injuries to the anterior cruciate ligaments happen from non-contact twisting trauma. You may hear a pop or a snap. Swelling is immediate and there is considerable instability of the knee joint, which makes any change in direction difficult. This injury needs immediate attention from an orthopaedic expert at a hospital to check the situation. Surgery is the most reliable treatment.
- Medial ligament injuries happen when the lower leg is forced out sideways at the knee. They are common in contact sports. Pain is acute on the inner side of the knee joint and there may be bruising and swelling. Treatment involves physiotherapy, with knee-bracing in more severe cases
Based on a text by Dr Hilary Jones, GP