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8 Ways to Prevent Sports Injuries

Wednesday, March 23, 2022 8:58 AM

By Karyn Odway

As spring sports start, so do the chances of student-athletes getting injured on the playing fields. Even though most high school sports injuries are minor – such as sprains and strains – athletes are at the highest risk of getting hurt during the first month of the season, as they warm up to competitive play.

Sports Injuries

How can players avoid being sidelined by injury? Patrick Birmingham, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon with the Orthopaedic & Spine Institute and a team physician for the Chicago Bears, offers this expert advice:

  1. Make strength training a priority. If athletes keep their muscles strong, they will give joints the support they need and keep ligaments aligned and in their proper place. It’s especially important to build the muscle groups that players will be using in their dominant sport, so athletes keep the proper form as they run, kick, or throw.   
  2. Warm-up to competing. Begin practice sessions with slower movements. This enables athletes to better feel their bodies and where they might have some weakness or soreness to work out before the strenuous drills start. By taking the time to warm muscles through some stretching, strengthening and cardio moves, it’s less likely the muscle will sprain or tear.
  1. Limit repetitive movements. Overuse injuries can have a damaging impact. Pitchers are the hardest hit with throwing-related overuse injuries. One study shows nearly 40 percent of them experience shoulder injuries and more than 55 percent need elbow repair. Ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction surgery continues to be prevalent among baseball players. Researchers note a high throwing workload and throwing while fatigued can lead to injury. Follow recommended pitch-count guidelines, pacing practices, and playtime. Starting this approach early in the season will increase the likelihood you will stay in the game throughout the season.
  1. Take pain seriously. Muscle fatigue is real. And a “no pain no gain” attitude can result in musculoskeletal damage to an athlete. For baseball and softball players, continuing to throw with arm fatigue increases their likelihood of needing surgery. From leg pain to stress fractures in distance runners and sprinters, an acute injury can lead to a chronic injury, so seek medical attention if the pain doesn’t subside within three days. It’s always best to exhaust nonoperative therapies before considering surgery. A sports medicine team can consider the athletes playing history and develop a comprehensive strength and conditioning plan – including physical therapy – to prevent further injury. For swelling that comes with acute injuries, icing and elevating the injured area can ease the pain as can anti-inflammatory medications.
  2. Encourage rest. Student-athletes should be encouraged to take days off at a time. Rest restores the body and mind. It gives tired muscles time to repair and quiets overthinking. Escaping from the rigors of being an athlete can have a healing effect, not only helping to prevent injuries but also positively impacting performance, especially when it comes to overuse injuries.
  3. Talk up the best way to fuel the body. It’s crucial that teen athletes eat well and hydrate adequately before and between practices. Vegetables and lean proteins are the top sources of necessary nutrition, which helps to repair and build muscle. Staying well hydrated – especially drinking water with electrolytes in it – also helps to keep athletes at peak performance.
  4. Double-check properly fitted gear. From the right shoe to keep an ankle joint stable to padding and headgear to protect the brain in contact sports like soccer and lacrosse, don’t ever underestimate the importance of a good fit in preventing sports injuries. Advise athletes on the best gear for them and make sure they are replacing it if needed, as the season wears on.
  5. Repeat the importance of sleep! Sleep is the time when your body repairs and recharges itself, so make sure your athletes are getting enough sleep. If they don’t, their performance will likely suffer when it comes to speed, accuracy, and reaction time, despite their training and diet. Research reveals athletes need a little more than 8 hours of sleep to feel well-rested, but about 70 percent of them fall short of those much-needed 8 hours by at least an hour. The study further shows only 3 percent of athletes get enough sleep to “train effectively and/or compete optimally,” so if you want your team to be injury-free and perform at its peak, prioritize sleep.

To prevent an existing injury from recurring, be sure your student-athlete is fully recovered before they return to sport. Feeling better isn’t necessarily being fully healed. Getting back in the game prematurely can leave your star athlete on the bench for the rest of the season.

If treating injuries early and often nonoperatively isn’t helping, it might be time to consider surgery.  Minimally invasive arthroscopic procedures are an option for such injuries as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears, shoulder impingement, and cartilage damage. These surgeries could help athletes fully recover from serious injury quicker and get back in the game sooner.

Here's to winning an injury-free sports season!

Patrick Birmingham, M.D., is a sports medicine specialist and orthopaedic surgeon at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute. His expertise is in repairing the knee, hip, shoulder, and elbow. He serves as clinical faculty for the University of Chicago and a team physician for the Chicago Bears.

Over the years, he’s been a team physician for high school, Olympic, and other professional sports teams. He’s also been a coach, currently coaching 5th and 6th-grade football at his sons’ school. He instills the approaches he professes with the athletes he coaches to keep them playing well and staying fit. He also helps weekend warriors regain their healthy life. Dr. Birmingham can be reached at (847) 866-7846. For more information, visit northshore.org/ortho.