Sports are a healthy, fun pastime and captivating form of entertainment, helping people aspire to greater fitness and come together in pursuit of a common goal. However, since they often require rigorous training, intense exercise, heightened flexibility, and bodily strain, athletic activities carry the risk of injury.
Overexerting yourself to throw the javelin farther, kick the soccer ball into a faraway goal, or slam a tennis ball into your opponent’s court could harm or even seriously impair your body. Sports medicine practitioners help patients maintain their health and treat athletic injuries so they can keep playing. Orthopedists, doctors who diagnose and treat musculoskeletal conditions, often specialize in sports medicine because athletes regularly harm their muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, or related tissues. Sports medicine also incorporates elements of preventive medicine and nutritional science, helping patients preserve their fitness and wellbeing to perform well on the field or court.
Common Sports Injuries
Since sports often require repeated movements, putting pressure on the same joints and bones each time, certain conditions are more common than others. Some of the most frequently reported sports-related injuries include:
- Plantar fasciitis: The tissue that runs from your heel to your toes is called “fascia.” If it becomes damaged or stretched, the bottom of your foot may experience sharp pains and swelling.
- Hamstring pull: Excessive jumping or running can overextend the muscles along the back of your thigh.
- Achilles tendinitis: The “Achilles” muscles adjoining your calf with your heel can become swollen and uncomfortable, most often in runners.
- Concussion: A traumatic injury to your head can damage the protective gel and fluid coating your brain, temporarily impairing your cognitive function and causing fatigue. This is particularly common in high-impact contact sports such as football or rugby. If left untreated, concussions can be fatal, so it is important to see a sports medicine specialist as soon as possible if you experience a blow to the head during athletic activity.
- Ankle sprain: Stretching or rupturing your ankle ligaments can be uncomfortable and impair your mobility. This injury can occur during any sport that requires repetitive foot movements.
- Shoulder injury: Any sport that involves throwing or hitting, such as tennis or baseball, can cause shoulder injuries such as inflamed joints or torn ligaments. The rotator cuff tendons of the shoulder are particularly prone to sports-related damage.
- Quadriceps strain: If the quadriceps muscles in the outer thigh become overworked, stretched, or torn, usually due to repeated squatting or lunging motions, they can interfere with your ability to walk and stand properly.
- Hip bursitis: The hip’s “bursa” are fluid-filled membranes that pad the joints. Biking, running, or standing for long periods can cause them to swell.
- Epicondylitis: Also called “tennis elbow” for the sport that most frequently causes it, this is a swollen outer elbow joint.
- Lower back pain: Running, bending over, and twisting can put undue pressure on your lower back vertebrae, muscles, and ligaments, harming them. Many athletes believe aching in the lower back is a normal part of exercise, but it is actually a symptom of what could be a serious injury such as a spinal fracture. If you experience chronic back pain, especially after playing or training for sports, contact your doctor for an assessment. Stretching before you exercise can help strengthen and stretch your lower back muscles to reduce your risk.
- Shin splints: These are sharp pains that result from running. They can be caused by an improper foot arch, weak hip or abdominal muscles, swollen shin muscles, or even stress fractures, small cracks in the leg bones.
- Torn ACL (knee): The anterior cruciate ligament, or “ACL,” helps your knee move properly. Overuse or rapid twists can damage or tear the ACL, limiting your leg movement. This injury can take up to nine months to heal.
- Palletofemoral syndrome: Repeated impact or strain can begin to dissolve or fragment the knee cap’s cartilage, making bending down very uncomfortable and causing an unsettling cracking noise when using the knee.
- Groin pull: Jumping, sprinting, and sudden movements can injure the muscles that connect your pelvis to your upper thighs, causing a groin pull. You may hear a crackling sound as you strain these muscles and then feel a prolonged aching when you attempt to use your thighs, especially when lifting or closing them.
Sports medicine specialists and orthopedists specializing in sports injuries can help diagnose and treat any of the above conditions to allow for freer movement and alleviate your symptoms.
The orthopedic issues that often result from sports injuries can cause chronic pain, making it difficult for you to get back to your game or even go about your daily activities. While their first priority is always to treat and completely resolve the injury, sports medicine specialists also frequently help patients cope with constant aching, tenderness, and discomfort using pain management therapies. These may include:
- Electrical stimulation, also called TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), involves passing energy through the nerves near your sports injury. This prevents them from sending pain impulses to your brain, providing temporary relief. Some doctors also offer IDET (intradiscal electrothermal therapy), during which a small wire transmits heat to the discs between your vertebrae, eliminating pain receptors. Radiofrequency ablation uses sound waves to accomplish the same effect.
- Prescription medications are often the first course of pain management solutions. Anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce swelling and alleviate discomfort. For more severe cases, sports medicine practitioners may suggest using morphine or corticosteroids to reduce pain and relax muscles.
- Injected medications. Sports medicine professionals can inject local anesthesia paired with Botox® (which prevents your muscles from contracting), viscosupplementation (a gel made of hyaluronic acid, which is found in connective tissue and may help injuries heal), corticosteroids (compounds that can ease inflammation and irritation), or sclerosing fluids (substances that can shrink blood vessels). These injections can temporarily diminish discomfort. They typically require repeated treatments to remain effective.
- Spinal decompression, a form of therapy in which your doctor uses a computerized, motorized instrument to massage and reduce pressure on your spinal discs.
- Heat and cold. Icing or using a heating pad on your injuries may be sufficient to manage pain from milder injuries.
Most often, sports medicine practitioners recommend using a combination of pain management techniques. These therapies may prevent or delay the need for orthopedic surgery and allow you to continue your regular activities unhindered.
Sports medicine practitioners often recommend physical therapy to help patients manage pain, treat their sports injuries, and improve their physical capabilities. Physical therapists do not have medical degrees, but they must go through comprehensive specialized training.
Typically, physical therapy involves coming in at least once a week to undergo assessment, practice exercises, and gradually rebuild damaged muscles and ligaments. Your physical therapist will also give you at-home exercises and routines to complete so that you can continue improving your fitness, flexibility, and health in between visits. You will most likely work with your physical therapist for several months or more as you progressively heal and improve.
Since sports-related conditions often result from repetitive motions or improper posture, physical therapists may also help you retrain your body.
Physical therapy can be a preventive measure, in which case your practitioner will show you how to stretch before exercising and teach you techniques to better protect your body as you play. Some sports medicine doctors may recommend it as part of a treatment plan along with pain management techniques. Your practitioner may also prescribe physical therapy to help you fully rehabilitate after orthopedic surgery or other procedures to repair a sports injury. Since sports-related conditions often result from repetitive motions or improper posture, physical therapists may also help you retrain your body so that you can perform the same actions in a safer manner.
Sports Medicine for Adults
Adult patients also need to protect their bodies during athletic activities and treat sports-related injuries. Sports medicine concerns for adults include:
- Treatment for strains, sprains, and fractures
- Management of arthritis and other orthopedic conditions associated with aging
- Advice regarding vitamins, supplements, and nutrition
- Sports conditions resulting from wear and tear or repetitive motions over years
- Physical exams to assess for sports injuries
- Preventive care and education to help adult patients understand and avoid health concerns
- Any necessary orthopedic surgery or other procedures
- Rehabilitation through physical therapy and other treatments after a sports-related injury
Adult sports medicine practitioners help patients maintain their athletic performance and health as they age and become more skilled athletes.
Sports Medicine for Children
Children often participate in individual or team sports through schools or community organizations. While these activities can help them make friends and develop healthy fitness habits, they can also put their still-developing bodies at risk for injury. Pediatric sports medicine specialists work with toddlers to teenagers, helping them protect their bodies from harm and treating any sports-related conditions. A primary care physician, pediatric orthopedist, or sports medicine specialist may help preserve your child’s wellbeing during athletic activities. In addition to typical sports medicine concerns (common injuries, orthopedics, physical therapy, etc.), these doctors focus on specific pediatric issues such as:
- Growth plate injuries. Children’s bones continue to develop until age 15, for girls, and 17, for boys. Since bones harden as they grow, children have what are known as growth plates, segments of vulnerable cartilage at both ends of each bone. Growth plate fractures or damage can cause deformity and prevent proper bone formation.
- Growth spurts. Sudden changes in height or muscle development can interfere with children’s coordination and mobility. Sports medicine specialists can help patients cope with growth spurts and avoid injury.
- Child sports psychology. The pressures and demands of competitive athletics can be particularly challenging for children. Some sports medicine practitioners assist pediatric patients in dealing with the social and emotional components of individual and team sports.
- Nutritional issues. Kids can be picky eaters, but it is important for young athletes to get proper hydration and nutrition. Sports medicine practitioners can help pediatric patients learn how to eat to protect and fortify their bodies.
- Health education. Children need to be taught the basics of orthopedics, anatomy, and other medical information to learn how to spot the symptoms of more serious sports injuries and ascertain what to do to prevent them. Pediatric sports medicine practitioners understand how to best engage with, communicate to, and teach children about their athletic health.
Diagnosis of Sports Injuries
There are a number of ways sports medicine doctors can diagnose injuries. Some practitioners work directly with individuals or teams, attending games to watch them perform and monitor their conditions, diagnosing them from afar and at mandatory assessments. Other doctors practice out of hospitals or private clinics where patients come to see them at regular intervals or if they experience sports injury symptoms. To diagnose sports injuries, sports medicine practitioners may:
- Conduct visual assessments. Doctors can typically diagnose more superficial wounds or severe fractures with just a simple examination, although they may order additional diagnostic tests to gather more data.
- Take x-rays, CT (computerized tomography, meaning a series of x-rays) scans, and MRIs (Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which passes magnetic or radio waves through patients’ bodies to create a detailed image). Sports medicine professionals or orthopedists typically use these advanced technologies to diagnose damaged bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons, especially for injuries that may not present visual symptoms.
- Review prior medical records. Doctors will often go over results of patients’ past physicals, information about previous sports injuries, and surgeons’ notes from procedures to learn more about patients’ pre-existing conditions. For example, a patient who previously experienced lower back pain from athletic activity may be at higher risk for spinal fracture.
- Discuss patients’ symptoms and concerns. Patients communicate what they experience during and after playing a sport to help their doctors narrow down which injuries could be affecting them.
- Collaborate with patients’ other physicians. Sports medicine often involves a variety of medical disciplines, so doctors may speak with patients’ general physicians, nutritionists, orthopedic surgeons, or any other relevant practitioners.
- Refer patients to specialists for additional information. If a sports medicine doctor is unable to completely diagnose a patient’s condition with the above procedures, he or she may recommend that the patient see a specialist for proper diagnosis.
Cost of Sports Medicine
The price of sports medicine care varies widely according to the following cost factors:
- The type of care you need. A routine athletic check-up should cost only a few hundred dollars, while treatment for a serious injury, especially one requiring orthopedic surgery, can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
- How athletically active you are. The more engaged in sports you are, the more likely you are to develop conditions requiring sports medicine, raising your costs.
- Where you live. Due to the cost of living and rent, medical expenses are higher in some areas than others.
- The diagnostic tests your doctor orders. Blood tests and medical imaging can add to the price of your sports medical treatment. For example, a CT scan usually costs between $200 and $1000.
- Which procedures, treatments, or therapies you require. Some conditions are simpler to manage and resolve than others, lowering your medical expense. For example, providing pain management for a simple ankle sprain will probably cost much less than surgery for a torn rotator cuff. A simple consultation will also be less expensive than an advanced therapeutic technique such as electrical stimulation.
Your primary care physician, orthopedist, physical therapist, or other sports medicine specialist can help you better understand the costs of your treatment at your initial consultation.
Payment for Sports Medicine Therapies
If you have health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare coverage, your provider will most likely pay a portion or all of your sports medicine costs. Your exact out-of-pocket expenses will depend on the scope and type of your insurance plan. You should also make sure you go to a sports medicine practitioner whose office accepts your insurance if you want to apply your coverage.
If you do not have health insurance, you may be able to afford sports medicine therapies through financing, which may be offered through your clinic or an outside lender, such as CareCredit. If you are interested in medical financing, you will need to meet the qualifications for your chosen program, commit to making monthly payments, and cover the cost of accrued interest.
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Benefits of Sports Medicine
Some patients may not believe they need the assistance of a sports medicine specialist or understand how this medical discipline could help them. Sports medicine is an important field because it allows patients to fully embrace their athletic activities and improve their wellbeing. Its many benefits include:
- Enhanced athletic performance. Diagnosing and treating uncomfortable conditions resulting from sports can allow you to play better. In addition, sports medicine specialists and physical therapists can teach you techniques and exercises to improve your strength, balance, and coordination, contributing to your athletic success.
- Improved confidence. Dealing with a sports injury on the field, track, court, or rink can make you self-conscious. Sports medicine practitioners work to meet your needs and return your self-assurance so you can enjoy your sport.
- Alleviation of discomfort. Chronic aching, soreness, irritation, or pain can interfere with your daily life. Sports medicine doctors work to help relieve these symptoms with pain management and other treatments so you can focus on more important things.
- Rehabilitated mobility. Sports injuries can impair not just your ability to play but to move at all. Physical therapists, orthopedists, and sports medicine professionals can increase mobility by treating your condition.
- Better social and psychological health. Playing a sport can make you feel happier and allow for important social interaction. By allowing you to get back to your game, sports medicine professionals can enhance your overall wellbeing and improve your mental state.
- Prevention of further sports injuries or adverse conditions. Untreated sports injuries tend to worsen with time, so preventing or catching them early can help you avoid costly, time-consuming, and uncomfortable conditions later on.
- Customized care. Your sports medicine doctor will work with you on an individual basis to create a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and preferences.
- Reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers through improved physical fitness.
Risks of Sports Medicine
The goal of sports medicine is to improve your comfort and expand your abilities. Sports medicine therapies are typically very safe, but their risks can include:
- Allergic reaction to treatment materials. You could experience an adverse reaction to medications, bandages, or other supplies used during sports medicine treatment.
- Relapse of original condition. Treatment cannot guarantee that you will not develop the same condition again when you return to athletics.
- Ineffective treatment. Some therapies are more effective for some patients than others.
- Burns, loss of sensation, or temporarily heightened discomfort. Various pain management techniques can produce these side effects.
- Surgical complications, if orthopedic surgery is involved. These can include infection, unfavorable scarring, tissue damage, and others.
Working with a qualified, experienced sports medicine practitioner and following his or her instructions can reduce your risks.
Sports Medicine Frequently Asked Questions
Can I see a sports medicine doctor if I’m not a great athlete?
Yes. Sports medicine is for any patients with injuries resulting from physical activity or those looking to improve their athletic performance.
Can I play while wearing a cast or brace?
This depends on your doctor’s advice and the rules of your particular sport.
How long will it take for me to get back to my sport?
Recovery times vary greatly based on the extent of your injuries. In general, patients return to activity within several weeks to a few months, with their doctor’s approval.
How can I tell if I have a sports injury?
If you experience persistent discomfort or impairment to physical activity, you should contact a sports medicine clinic.
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