By Sarah Gleim
If you love playing sports -- or are ready to dive into a team league to recover (or develop) your kickball or softball skills -- showing up with the right gear isn't the only thing to keep in mind. Your body is susceptible to many common injuries, simply because you, well... play sports. And while you may have been more at risk when you were a kid and still growing, that doesn’t mean you’re safe from sports injuries now that you’re an adult.
There's good news, though. You can avoid most of the unlucky sprains, strains and bone breaks that can be caused by a rough game of football or soccer (or just forgetting to stretch). We’ve compiled a list of the 10 most common sports injuries -- and exactly how you can avoid ending up on the DL.
1. Sprains And Strains
Several injuries fall into this category, including sprained ankles, bicep tendinitis and strained hamstrings and groin muscles. These injuries are common when playing sports that involve running, jumping, using your shoulders and stopping and going quickly. However, certified manual physical therapist Amy McGorry, PT, DPT, MTC, who holds a doctorate in physical therapy and works for Thrive Integrated Physical Therapy in New York City, says sprains and strains can be avoided. “You need to strengthen your muscles and practice a good flexibility regimen that includes both an eccentric [muscle-lengthening] and concentric [muscle-shortening] program,” she says. “These will allow the muscles to be ready for anything that comes their way.”
2. Achilles Tear/Tendinitis
Achilles tendinitis occurs most often among runners or athletes who play sports that include running and jumping. The Achilles tendon -- that tendon at the back of your ankle -- gets inflamed and painful from overuse, and in worse-case scenarios, it can tear.
McGorry says it’s critical to have good strengthening and flexibility programs to prevent acute Achilles tendinitis -- which, if left untreated, can make it difficult or impossible to run. “Running in proper shoes is also important because they help subject your body to less stress,” McGorry says. “You also want a good, strong hip flexor [muscle], and work your calf muscle to indirectly strengthen the Achilles tendon so it moves better.”
3. Shin Splints
If you recently upped the intensity of your workout or are trying out a new sport (especially running), you could be experiencing shin splints. It’s that pain on the inside of your shin, and while it sucks, it’s really nothing more than inflammation of the muscle around your shinbone. It’s pretty easy to avoid, McGorry says. Wearing the proper shoes, for one, is a huge step. Also, make sure you stretch your calves and work your calf muscles both eccentrically and concentrically. McGorry also says doing gentle exercises to strengthen the foot can help you avoid shin splints.
4. Epicondylitis (Tennis Elbow/Golfer’s Elbow)
The two most common forms of epicondylitis, medial epicondylitis (aka golfer’s elbow) and lateral epicondylitis (aka tennis elbow) typically occur due to poor swing and cause pain on the inside and outside of the elbow, respectively. McGorry says strengthening your forearm muscles and rotator cuff can help prevent this painful condition. “Get a lesson regarding your form if you’re playing golf or tennis,” she says. “If your swing is off, you can injure that muscle. I always say get a lesson, because a pro can tell you what you’re doing wrong.”
5. Rotator Cuff Tendinitis/Tear
Your rotator cuff is made up of muscles and tendons which help move and stabilize the shoulder. Tendinitis and tears can occur when athletes make repetitive motions, as in baseball and tennis. “Exercise that strengthens the upper back and core muscles, as well as the rotator cuff, can help prevent tendinitis and tears,” McGorry says. “If these muscles aren’t strong, they’ll overcompensate, and that can lead to tears.” She also says stretching your pectoral (chest) muscles after games can help prevent injury.
You actually don't need superhero powers to prevent breaking a bone during a rough-and-tumble game of tackle football. While most fractures are accidents that are hard to avoid, you can make your bones stronger by eating a proper diet, getting enough vitamin D and calcium and, McGorry says, training. "Weight training strengthens your muscles so they can act as shock absorbers," she says. "And some research shows that weight training actually strengthens bones, too."
Concussions occur after a person suffers a traumatic brain injury, usually after being bumped, hit or receiving a blow to the head. But you can also get a concussion after a blow to the body if it causes your head to move back and forth hard enough, which is most common in sports like soccer, football, hockey and boxing. The simplest way to avoid a concussion is to wear the proper gear, especially a helmet. Strengthening your neck and upper-back muscles can help, too, because they act as a cushion and support the hit, McGorry says. “Good strong muscles can control the displacement of your head and help take the force so your head doesn’t whiplash and the brain doesn’t get knocked around,” she notes.
8. Knee Injuries
We’ve all seen the gruesome replays of professional athletes suffering agonizing knee injuries. Who can forget watching San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman tear his MCL and ACL during the 2014 NFC Championship Game? He’s not alone, though: Knee injuries are among the most common injuries in sports. But they don’t have to put an end to a professional (or in your case, fun) athletic career. “Focus on strengthening your hamstrings, quads and glutes,” McGorry advises. “Good, strong glutes really help the way thighbones roll in, and a strong hamstring can actually act as an ACL by preventing the shinbone from coming forward.”
9. Hip Labral Tears
The labrum is the soft elastic tissue ring that surrounds the socket of your hip joint. It holds the ball at the top of your thighbone (femur) in place. It’s vulnerable to tears from direct trauma to the hip and can also be injured during yoga and ballet, due to the repetitive hip rotation and hyperflexion and squatting motions they often include. Stretching the hip flexor muscle and strengthening your glutes can help prevent tears and injury, McGorry says, as can wearing proper footwear. “During yoga, be very mindful of your form -- and know your limits,” she warns.
10. Back Injuries
Sports that may contribute to back injuries include running, golf and tennis. But according to McGorry, proper strength training and a solid flexibility program can mean all the difference. “People make the mistake of developing just their abs,” she says. “They need to make sure to strengthen the multifidus muscles, too.” (The multifidus muscles are the small muscles that surround the vertebrae in your back.)