Sports Injuries – How To Exercise And Stay Injury Free
It makes no difference whether you’re an amateur or a professional athlete. Anybody who exercises or plays sport is at risk of injury. In fact, you can do yourself as much harm going for a half hearted jog around the block as running a marathon.
“Exercise is only effective if done correctly,” says Andrew Thomas, MCSP, Chartered Physiologist at the East Midlands Physiotherapy Clinic. “The most common types of injury occur for very obvious reasons – over exertion, wearing the wrong footwear and not warming up properly.”
Thomas says knee and back injuries top the complaints list, followed by lower leg problems, and foot and ankle strains. “Men are more at risk from fractures and broken limbs, mainly because they play more rough sports such as football and rugby. Men are also likely to have a more testosterone-driven, aggressive attitude, which doesn’t help. Women though are more predisposed to certain types of injury. Female runners, because they have wider hips and more angular thigh bones, are prone to knee problems. Women are also at greater risk of premature osteoporosis, as a result of depleted estrogen levels caused by over exercising when young.”
“There are two main types of injury,” explains Dr Richard Budget, at the British Olympic Medical Center, Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow, Middlesex. “One is overuse injury, caused by repetitive strain, and the other is an acute traumatic injury, where you either collide with or crash into someone, or break a leg. This is caused through plain bad luck.”
Dr Budget adds, “Traumatic injuries are more common in contact sports whereas with non-contact sports, such as tennis or rowing, you’re more at risk from overuse injuries. Also, doing too much exercise too quickly means your body doesn’t have time to repair itself. This causes soft tissue damage to the muscles, tendons or ligaments. In extreme cases it can actually cause tiny stress fractures to the bone itself.”
While a small amount of wear and tear each time you exercise is normal, as long as you give yourself enough time to recover, the body recuperates. Problems occur if you push yourself beyond a certain limit, by working too hard, doing the exercises incorrectly, or by using exercise equipment or machines wrongly, so that you end up straining the body in an unnatural way.
Just in case you’re wondering whether it’s safe ever to set foot in the gym again, the good news is that most sports injuries are relatively easy to avoid. If you want to get fit and toned without putting yourself at risk, John McCarthy, Exercise Physiologist at the National Institute of Sports Medicine, London, recommends these guidelines:
- Warm up before exercise
Always spend 10 to 15 minutes warming up before you start exercising. This is very important, whether you’re going to the gym, doing aerobics, step, running, cycling, playing tennis, or taking that jog around the block.
First, do some gentle exercises such as running, jogging, or walking on the spot. Or try a slower version of some of the exercises you plan to be doing. This increases your body temperature and helps your heart rate to adjust. It also warms and loosens your muscles, and makes them more flexible and ready for exercise.
Once you feel yourself breaking out in a mild sweat, follow this up with a few stretches, concentrating on the muscles and joints you will be using. For example, if you are about to go running, or do a series of leg exercises, then you should do some leg, back and ankle stretches.
- Warm down
A warm down routine, lasting 5 to 10 minutes, is important at the end of every exercise session. Either jog slowly on the spot, or simply slow down the exercises you are doing, until your heart rate returns to its normal resting rate. Finish off with specific stretches of all the areas you have worked. This helps to disperse the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, which can occur with vigorous exercise. (Lactic acid is a waste product created by aerobic activity, and causes aches and pains if it is not cleared.)
Warm Up/Wamp Down Exercises
Perform the set of exercises below to help you warm up and warm down. When warming down, hold the positions for slightly longer – about 20 to30 seconds. Always spend 5 to 10 minutes on general aerobic exercises first (for example, slow jogging or brisk walking) to warm your muscles before stretching.
- The Hamstring Stretch
Stand on your left leg, with your knee slightly bent. Place your right leg about a foot behind you. Gently move your weight onto your front leg so you feel a stretch all the way down the back of the right leg and hold for a count of 15. Keep your pelvis as vertical as you can. Do 3 on each leg.
- The Quadriceps Stretch
Stand on your left leg and support yourself against a wall or item of furniture with your left hand. Keep your left knee soft, and grasp your right foot with your right hand. Keeping your knees together, pull your right foot up towards your bottom. Again, tilt your pelvis under you. Repeat and then change legs.
- The Side Stretch
Stand with your legs a little wider than hip-width apart, knees soft. Using your abdominal muscles to protect your back, place one hand on your hip, and bend to the left until you feel a stretch along your right side. Keep your body in line with your feet. Increase the stretch by putting your hands by your ears. Change sides and repeat.
- The Back Stretch
Stand with your legs slightly more than hip-width apart, knees soft and your back slightly arched. Link your fingers together, palms facing you, and raise them forwards to shoulder height. Feel a really good stretch between your shoulder blades as you extend your arms in front of you. Repeat twice more.
- The Cat Stretch
Kneel with your hands directly beneath your shoulders, fingers pointing forwards and splayed. Now arch your back towards the floor and hold for 30 seconds, then slowly arch your back upwards, pulling in the abdominal muscles. Repeat 3 times.
The Good Exercise Guide
- Choose the type of exercise that’s right for your body
Lots of injuries occur by not taking into account existing weaknesses. For instance, if you already have weak knees, it’s probably not a good idea to go jogging everyday. Far better to start off using a Stairmaster at the gym for the same effect without punishing your joints. If your shoulders aren’t strong, be careful when using weights in an upper body workout, or you could end up with bursitis (inflammation of the tissues around the shoulders).
- Have a professional fitness assessment
Have an assessment before you embark on a new exercise program, especially if it’s been a while since you last exercised. This will ensure that you are working at the right level for fitness without injury.
- Choose a workout or sport that matches your needs and fitness levels
Don’t attempt to do an exercise class that’s too difficult for you. If you haven’t been near a gym for ages – or ever – always start with beginners’ classes. It’s better to build up your fitness levels gradually rather than risk injuring yourself. It’s also a good idea to exercise different parts of your body on alternate days. For instance, if you do upper body work one day, do lower body exercises the next. This gives your muscles a chance to recuperate. Don’t do more sessions than recommended in your fitness assessment.
- Choose an exercise that you enjoy
Otherwise it will just feel like a chore and trying to keep motivated will make you feel more stressed. For instance, if you want strong, lean arms but you hate doing weights, opt for swimming instead.
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes
It’s vital that you wear the right type of shoes for the exercise you are doing (for instance, running shoes, tennis shoes, etc) – otherwise you risk developing shin splints (pain in the shin area) or strained ankles. Clothes should be comfortable and not so tight that they restrict movement.
- Drink plenty of water
Drink water – lukewarm, not cold – before, during and after exercise, so that you don’t get dehydrated.
- Don’t overdo it
- No matter how keen you are to get fit, don’t be tempted to over exercise to make up for months of inactivity. Doing too much too soon can cause pulled tendons and ligaments, and in some cases, small but painful stress fractures that can put you out of action for weeks.
- Always listen to your body and stop exercising at the first sign of pain. Some muscle soreness is normal when you first start, but if it is concentrated in one area and doesn’t go after a few days, it could be a sign of injury.
- Stop exercising if you feel dizzy, nauseous, extremely breathless, or have pain in your chest. Check with your doctor.
- Remember your weaknesses: if your shoulders are not your strong point be careful when using weights in an upper‑body workout.
Eat A Healthy Diet
There’s no point trying to get fit if the rest of your lifestyle is unhealthy. In order to exercise more efficiently, it’s important that you provide your body with the right ‘fuel’ to give energy. Ideally, you should eat plenty of highly nutritious foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses, lean meat, poultry, pasta (preferably wholegrain) and rice. These foods will not only provide you with more essential vitamins and minerals, they are also easier to digest than stodgy, processed, fatty foods.
Avoid too many stimulants such as tea, coffee, alcohol and fizzy drinks, which will leave you jittery and dehydrated. If you are planning on exercising, always make sure you have eaten something earlier on – and whatever you do, don’t skip breakfast. The idea is to eat ‘little and often’ and preferably not last thing at night.
Top Causes Of Injury
The recent findings at the East Midlands Physiotherapy Clinic, which specializes in sports injuries, show that the commonest causes of injury are:
- Exercising too much, too fast and with too much force.
- Wrong footwear – this causes the most athletic injuries.
- Poor exercise techniques which stress the muscles and ligaments.
- Spending hardly any, or no, time warming up and warming down.
- Body type – 10% of injuries, especially in runners, are caused by underlying physical weaknesses such as weak knees.
If you find yourself in a situation where a sports injury has occurred, you should always seek a proper medical checkup, preferably at a sports clinic (all good health clubs have information on those nearest to you, or ask your GP to refer you to one on the NHS). Conventional treatment is based on an orthodox medical assessment, followed by medication (e.g. painkillers and/or antibiotics) and remedial physiotherapy (e.g. mobilization exercises).
The standard ‘immediate’ emergency procedure for injuries is a well established technique called R.I.C.E. The first thing you do with any injury, particularly a ‘traumatic’ one, is the following – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. This must be done in the first 24 to 48 hours after an injury to help the healing process.
REST – resting an injured muscle or ligament helps to control internal bleeding.
ICE – apply ice to the area, through a cloth, for about 15 minutes and repeat several times over 72 hours. The coldness of the ice helps to numb the area and acts as a painkiller. It also constricts blood vessels and reduces inflammation.
COMPRESS – apply a compress or an elastic bandage for support and to stem further internal bleeding and swelling.
ELEVATE – for an arm or leg with a strain or sprain, lie down and elevate the injured part above heart level, at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees. This helps to drain the blood and excess fluid, and reduce swelling.
This R.I.C.E procedure should help reduce any swelling within 24 to 48 hours, after which you should continue to rest until there is a total recovery. The muscle or ligament will probably feel quite sore for a couple of weeks, during which time you should not exercise. On average it takes about 4 to 6 weeks to recover from standard injuries. During this time it’s best to rest as much as possible.
Never underestimate an injury – it’s wise to consult a doctor, or follow the emergency procedure R.I.C.E above.
Natural Remedies To Boost Recovery From Injury
Natural remedies can help boost the healing process by increasing the circulation, and reducing pain and inflammation caused by sprains, ruptures and strains of the muscles and joints. Keep a few basic natural remedies in your first aid kit.
Muscle soreness, swelling – Rhus tox 6c (this is a well established remedy for muscle sprains and strains). It is also useful for over exertion. Take as directed.
Bruises, swellings, cramps – Arnica cream (apply externally about 3 to 4 times a day) or take one 6c tablet, 3 to 5 times a day. This is the very best natural first aid remedy. The tablets are also very effective if the injury is accompanied by shock.
Injury to the connective tissues – Ruta grav 6c for bruises to the shinbone, kneecap or elbow. Take as directed.
Broken bones – Symphytum 6c (prepared from comfrey). Take as directed.
Bruises, cuts, grazes – Lavender oil (applied neat, or used in the bath). It helps heal bruises and minor cuts by stimulating the cells to regenerate and reducing inflammation. It also has analgesic and antiseptic properties.
Cuts and grazes – Tea tree oil (diluted in carrier oil or a few drops of water). Tea tree is a natural antiseptic.
Wounds, cuts, grazes, blisters – Calendula cream (also available in homeopathic tablets). While it’s more practical to use a herbal cream or tablets, you can also make a decoction, or herbal tea, using dried calendula flowers steeped in hot water (for 10 to 20 minutes). When cool, use to bathe the wound.
Broken bones, injured muscles – Comfrey. To make a poultice, mix 9 g of powdered root with 3fl oz of hot water. Stir into a paste and cool. Apply to the affected area and cover with a piece of sterile gauze or cloth. Secure with a bandage and leave for a few hours.
Bruises, swellings – Hypercal (a mixture of hypericum and calendula), which is available from most health stores.
The Expert’s Choice
Jayne Goddard, President of the Complementary Medical Association says, “Always have an injury checked out first, especially if it’s to do with the eyes or head. Natural remedies can help boost the healing process by increasing the circulation and reducing pain and inflammation caused by sprains, ruptures and muscle and joint strain. They’re easy to use and effective for all sorts of injuries. I’d recommend keeping a few basics in your first aid kit. As well as working on physical symptoms, some remedies also have an effect on the psyche. You can use Arnica tablets and cream, for the mental shock of a sudden injury and the physical trauma. The smell of lavender oil, too, has a wonderfully, soothing effect on the mind in these circumstances.”
Acupressure practitioner, Tarpin Williams claims the therapy can help recovery, often with remarkable effects on overall wellbeing. “I believe many sports injuries occur as a result of weaknesses in the body which have never been properly addressed. They may have been caused by a childhood bump or fall, and a person may have developed a ‘compensation system’ to accommodate for discomfort. Orthodox techniques tend to focus only on the affected area. Yet a knee problem is nearly always a result of weakness in the spine which needs attention first. Emotions play an important role too. Mental tension is nearly always reflected in the muscles. I locate these ‘blocked’ areas of energy and release tension so the whole body functions as it was originally designed to.”