You & Your Health: Chronic Sports Injuries

With Andrew Watson of Goodmeasure Pharmacy

Exercise has a host of benefits to both your physical and mental health. People who regularly take part in physical activity have a lower risk of developing many long-term conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, and some cancers.

But sometimes, due to improper training, technique or tools, exercise can lead to chronic injuries that can impact you in later life if not managed correctly.

Chronic sports injuries are those which are a result of overusing an area of your body through prolonged, repetitive movement over a long period of time. They are musculoskeletal injuries that affect bones, joints, ligaments, tendons or muscles.

Different sports carry different injury risks. Runners often experience foot/knee-related injuries, golfers are more likely to experience shoulder and lower back problems, and footballers may be more prone to groin, quad or ankle sprains.

Chronic injuries far outnumber acute sports injuries – those resulting directly from a hit or fall, such as broken bones or concussion. However, people often ignore chronic injuries as just wear and tear or signs of getting older and continue playing sports or exercising despite symptoms, meaning the body doesn’t get chance to recover. By the time they seek medical help, the injuries are well established and can be more difficult to treat conservatively.

Without intervention, a chronic sports injury will continue to reoccur. Overtime, repetitive trauma to the muscles, ligaments and tendons could lead to long-term implications such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or calcification where calcium leaks into bruises in the muscle causing bone-like structures.

Common chronic sports injuries include:

  • ACL tears – the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is in the knee and can be partially or completely torn by overstretching in sports such as basketball, football, gymnastics or tennis. A sudden stop or change in direction may cause the weakened ligament to snap. Surgery is sometimes needed to repair or replace the ligament.
  • Hamstring strain – the hamstring is a tendon that attaches the muscle to the bone in the thigh. It can be strained due to rapid acceleration in a short period of time and is common in runners. Long-term, it can affect mobility and flexibility.
  • Rotator cuff injury – this is the part of the shoulder that controls movement and stability, but it is prone to injuries, particularly in sports such as tennis or swimming where the arms are lifted. It can also be caused by impingement, where the tendon catches on the bone. If scar tissue develops, frozen shoulder can develop where movement in the joint becomes limited.
  • Shin splints – this is pain along the tibia (shin bone) after exercise. It can feel like the muscle is pulling away from the bone. Running or dancing on hard surfaces could be the cause, as well as wearing improper footwear with no support, or having flat feet or a high arch.
  • Sprains and strains – the most common sport injuries, caused by stress to ligaments, muscles or joints.They can occur anywhere but are more common in ankles, the groin and lower back, causing tenderness or stiffness. Instability is the biggest risk factor and bracing may help to prevent further injury.
  • Stress fractures – tiny cracks commonly caused by weight-bearing activities in places like the wrist or heel bone. If not properly managed, they can lead to larger fractures that are harder to heal.
  • Tendinitis – this is where the tendons become inflamed due to repetitive motion and is common in the Achilles, tennis elbow, or jumper’s knee. Jumping, running, walking, rowing, throwing and even fishing can cause these injuries.

Symptoms of chronic sports injuries are pain when exercising, a dull ache when resting, and swelling in the area affected. Treatment includes rest and ice to the area affected, anti-inflammatory medication (ibuprofen), wearing braces or supports, or manual therapy such as physiotherapy or massage. In more persistent cases, steroid injections or surgery may be required.

Around 60 percent of chronic sports injuries are because of poor training, such as incorrect technique, trying to progress too fast, or overdoing a motion past the body’s capability. It can also be caused by wearing the wrong footwear, not warming up or cooling down properly, or having general poor health.

Muscle fatigue is the leading cause of injury, resulting from a lack of strength and/or endurance. To reduce the risk of reoccurrence, prevention is more important than treatment. The focus shouldn’t just be on managing pain; improving weakness and bad habits will get to the root of the cause will help you stay in the game.