It's been a few days since your last run, and that twinge in your knee still hasn’t gone away. Or maybe you took a blow to the head while surfing, but you don’t think it’s anything to worry abut. It’s common for men—especially weekend warriors who try to get in as much playtime as possible before the workweek starts—to “tough out” the discomfort of an injury rather than get it checked by a physician.
That’s usually a bad idea. Common sports-related injuries include stress fractures, muscle sprains and strains, head injuries and lacerations. While many of these seem like they can be treated at home, it can be difficult to tell how serious an injury really is. By delaying needed treatment, you’re much more likely to end up with complications or a chronic condition.
Stress fractures occur over time from repeated stress on the bone, such as from running or basketball, and most often affect the feet or legs. Stress fractures may not cause pain at first; however, as the fracture becomes more severe, the pain may increase every time weight is placed on the injured bone, and the area may become swollen. Though rest is usually the main treatment for stress fractures, they should be diagnosed by a physician to ensure there is nothing else going on with the bone or surrounding tissue.
Sprains are often confused with strains, but they are different injuries. A sprain occurs when a ligament, a band of connective tissue that joins one end of a bone to another, is stretched or torn. Sprains can range from a minimal stretch to a complete tear, and are characterized by tenderness or pain, bruising and swelling. Sprains often cause instability or immobility in the affected area as well. Unless a sprain is minimal, it’s a good idea to get medical attention. You can’t always tell right away if an ankle, for example, is sprained or actually broken, and the sooner a broken bone is set, the more likely it is to heal correctly without complications. Even if there is no break, severely stretched or torn ligaments may heal more quickly if they are immobilized or supported with the proper brace.
A strain is a pull or tear of a muscle or a tendon that connects muscle to bone. Strains are usually caused by overstretching; symptoms include pain, muscle spasm, and weakness. If your symptoms are anything but minor, don’t write it off. A severe strain that is not correctly treated by a medical professional can lead to long-term damage and loss of function.
Sprain or strain, never try to “shake it off” or play through an injury. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop. Listen to the warning and you may avoid more serious problems later. Unless you are sure an injury doesn’t need treatment, it’s better to err on the side of caution and get a professional opinion. Always see a physician if a sprain or strain causes severe pain, swelling, or numbness, or you can’t put weight on the injured area.
If you don’t have any of these symptoms, you may be able to treat the injury at home with RICE: rest, elevation, compression and elevation. Ibuprofen can help with pain and swelling. If symptoms do not improve or worsen, seek medical care.
Injuries to the head should almost always get medical attention, sooner rather than later. A blow to the head may seem like no big deal, but we are learning more every day about the debilitating long-term impact of concussions on brain function. If you are hit in the head, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re okay because you didn’t pass out. Contrary to popular belief, most people who suffer a concussion do not lose consciousness. There is no such thing as a “minor” concussion, and you should not try to determine the seriousness of your injury. Call a physician right away or go to a hospital emergency room for evaluation.
Lacerations are another type of injury that is too easily ignored. Deep cuts may require stitches to stop bleeding, prevent infection and speed healing; a bandage won’t always do it. Plus, you may be due for a tetanus shot.
Fortunately, most sports injuries can be treated effectively, and you should be able to return to your activities.
Arnold Cuenca, D.O., is a family medicine specialist with Scripps Health. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps. For more information or for a physician referral, please visit www.scripps.org or call 1-800-SCRIPPS (1-800-727-4777).