Avoiding the Injury Bug

7 rules to consider when trying to stay healthy and safe during physical activities

An athlete stretches her arms on a gray and windy day at the beach.

Of the 35 to 40 million injury-related emergency room visits that take place each year, approximately 3.7 million are sports-induced, meaning nearly four million people go to the emergency room annually in the United States due to a sports-related injury.

Sports injuries appear to be on the rise, most notably due to children competing in athletics at younger ages and the baby boomer generation continuing to exercise well into their 50s and 60s.

Although it’s impossible to prevent injuries from happening, there are steps you can take to significantly reduce your chances of sustaining one. Paul Stricker, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Scripps Clinic, offers seven guidelines for people to follow when trying to avoid suffering an injury during sports and other physical activity.

“Although some may think they are invincible, it’s important to remember that sports injuries happen to people who are in top physical shape as well as people who are exercising for the first time,” says Dr. Stricker. “Children are now playing harder at younger ages, baby boomers are working out in record numbers and extreme sports have increased in popularity over the past few years — leading to more injuries.”

Gradual approaches best for sports routines

Dr. Stricker points out that most injuries result from the overuse of a muscle or a joint. Many people who take a significant break from exercising or participating in a sport think they can pick up right where the left off before the hiatus. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Many common sports injuries, such as shin splints, tennis elbow, and shoulder tendinitis may be a direct result from overuse.

“Some people are confident that long layoffs in their exercise routine will not adversely affect their ability to perform,” says Dr. Stricker. “That misconception is why many of them suffer injuries. I highly encourage people to take a gradual approach when beginning a new physical activity or sport. They should refrain from doing too much too soon and overusing muscles that are not capable of handling that type of stress.”

Prevention tips to safeguard against sports injury

Since injuries unfortunately do occur regardless of safety measures, Dr. Stricker has developed the following rules as a means of reducing a person’s chances of suffering one. Whether it’s participating in an organized sport, working out at the gym, or simply running with friends, the following seven rules will help to keep you happy, healthy and safe:

Rule 1: Avoid overuse. Most injuries are a direct result of overuse. If you are a “weekend warrior” or a trained athlete, overusing muscles, tendons and joints can lead to severe, painful health issues. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of overuse injuries is crucial to preventing the development of a chronic problem. After recovery, adjusting your technique and/or training schedule may be necessary to prevent recurrence.

Rule 2: Follow nutritional guidelines. Eating a balanced diet and consuming enough fluids before, during and after physical activity will help keep your body weight low, your energy level high and dehydration at a minimum.

Rule 3: Warm up and cool down. This includes stretching properly before and after participating in any physical activity. Many people pull muscles in their shoulders and legs because they don’t warm up properly.Doing simple stretches and light jogging may help you prepare the body for any type of exercise.

Rule 4: Use the correct equipment. Properly maintained equipment assures its effectiveness and can save you from suffering severe injuries such as head trauma, eye damage or broken bones.

Rule 5: Use proper technique. Using poor technique while weight training, playing tennis, or swimming laps can be devastating and possibly lead to torn muscles and shoulder injuries. You should ask for a spot at the gym or have a professional examine your techniques while performing activities to help avoid strain and overuse.

Rule 6: Treat old injuries properly. Old injuries that are allowed to linger and not given the proper time to heal will continue to occur. Returning to the physical activity before your previous injury has completely healed will place stress upon the injury and force your body to compensate for the weakness. This compensation may put you at greater risk for injuring another part of your body.

Rule 7: Get enough rest. You should always let your body relax for short intervals, whether its resting between sets at the gym or taking a knee during halftime or between periods. These resting periods will help your body recover more quickly and will help to avoid overuse.

Seeking help for sports injuries

If a serious injury does occur, Dr Stricker recommends that you see a physician immediately. An injury that doesn’t appear serious but results in continuous pain may be an indication of an internal injury and you should seek medical attention as well.

Among other things, physicians may order X-rays, apply heat or ice, prescribe medicine or physical therapy, or bandage or cast the area depending on the injury.