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Preventing Sports Injuries

Recreational sports and fitness have become part of our lifestyle. Regular exercise will strengthen your muscles, improve joint function, keep bones strong, slow the aging process, and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. However, along with the enjoyment and health benefits, you can't ignore the possibility of injuries. Here are some tips on how to prevent them.

What causes a sports injury?

Most injuries happen when you try to make your body do something it's not used to doing, such as:

  • Moving in a way that your body is not flexible enough to move
  • Trying to lift something that you're not strong enough to lift
  • Quickly applying a lot of force to a muscle or joint
  • Continually overusing a muscle or tendon

Common sports injuries

Sports injuries range from concussions to broken ankles. Some of the most common (and who gets them) include:

  • Tendinitis: An inflammation of the tendon caused by overusing a joint. Many runners, cyclists, golfers, swimmers, baseball players, and tennis players experience this in their knees, shoulders, and elbows.
  • Pulled hamstrings: A strain of the muscle connecting the buttocks with the back of the thigh. Sprinters, hurdlers, football players, and basketball players are likely to get this injury when doing quick stops or starts.
  • Shin splint: A painful condition caused by an irritation of the front portion of the leg between the ankle and knee. The injury is often found in runners, especially those putting in too many miles on hard pavement.

What can you do before you begin?

  • Talk with your doctor to determine the right amount of activity for you.
  • Understand what muscle groups will be used and slowly condition them.
  • Warm up before you exercise. The tendons will become more flexible and more blood will flow to your muscles.
  • Check your shoes. Many injuries are caused by wearing worn-out shoes or the wrong kind.
  • Learn how to use your athletic equipment. For example, an ill-fitting mouth guard can irritate your teeth and gums.

How to stay safe

  • Wear protective gear. This includes a cup for contact sports and an eyeguard for racquetball.
  • Take lessons. Proper instructions can reduce the chance of developing injuries like tendinitis or stress fractures.
  • Don't force your body when you are tired, sick, or in pain. Pushing yourself can cause the condition to get worse.
  • Take some time off from physical activities. At least once a week, give yourself a break.
  • Don't pack a week's worth of exercising into your weekend. Work out at least three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes to decrease risk of injury.
  • Use the 10 percent rule. When changing your activity level, increase it in steps of no more than 10 percent each week.
  • Listen to your body. You might not be as flexible as you were when you were younger.
  • Include cardiovascular exercise and strength training in your workouts. A balanced program will keep you from getting bored and reduce your chance of injury.

You're not finished until you've cooled down

A proper cooling-down routine will bring more blood into your worked-out muscles to prevent cramping and injury. Try any of the following:

  • A fast 5- to 10-minute walk while gradually slowing your pace
  • Continuing the same exercise you were doing, but at a much slower pace
  • Five to 10 minutes of painless stretching, holding each stretch for 30 to 60 seconds

Proper fuels will prevent breakdowns

There are no foods that are good for one sport and bad for another. However, some sports require more energy than others. Your performance can benefit by finding the right combination of foods, as well as the right time, to eat before the big game. A balanced diet should consist of fruits, juices, and cereals for breakfast; soups, deli sandwiches, and vegetables for lunch; and similar foods including salads, breads, and starches for dinner.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue that can cause you to get injured, especially if you're prone to cramping. Always have water and sports drinks close by. Besides the 8 to 10 glasses (8 oz.) of decaffeinated fluids you should drink each day, you should also drink 8 to 10 ounces of fluid per 15 to 20 minutes of strenuous exercise.

What to do if you get injured

Pain is nature's way of telling you to stop. The message could be excessive muscle fatigue, a deep tingling sensation, or a throbbing in one part of your body. Follow the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) rule:

  • Rest: You can still work out using other parts of your body, but you must relax the injured area for it to heal properly.
  • Ice: Use an ice pack 15 to 20 minutes three or four times daily for two or three days after an injury. This will stop the swelling and ease pain.
  • Compression: Wrap the injury in an elastic bandage to help reduce swelling. Make it tight enough to feel some pressure, but not so tight that you cut off circulation.
  • Elevation: Raise your injury above your heart level. This will decrease the supply of blood to the injury and help stop swelling.

If the pain continues, get treatment. If you ignore it, a mild injury can become serious. For instance, untreated tendinitis can lead to a torn tendon--a more complicated injury that could sideline you for weeks or months. Time is necessary for healing. Returning to your sport before an injury has fully healed may cause reinjury and require even more time to heal.