Diagnosis of Sports Injuries

To diagnose your sports injury, your doctor will likely:

  • Ask about the injury and how it happened.
  • Ask about any recreational or occupational activities you do and if you recently changed the intensity level of these activities.
  • Examine the injured area.
  • Order imaging tests such as x-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to evaluate the bones and soft tissues.

Treatment of Sports Injuries

You should not try to “work through” the pain of an injury, regardless of whether it is an acute or overuse injury. When you have pain from a particular movement or activity, you should stop right away.Continuing the activity may cause further harm.

The goals of treatment for a sports injury are recovery of the injured part of the body and prevention of future injuries.

Treatment for Serious Injuries

You should see a health care provider if you have symptoms of a serious injury. These symptoms include:

  • Severe pain, swelling, or bruising.
  • Pain and swelling that do not go away after a few days.
  • Being unable to tolerate any weight on the area.
  • An obvious deformity.

Treatment for serious injuries may include:

  • Immobilization. Immediate immobilization is a common treatment for musculoskeletal sports injuries, and it can be done right away by an athletic trainer or paramedic. Immobilization limits movement in the area and enables the blood to flow more directly to the injury (or the site of surgical repair to an injury). Immobilization reduces pain, swelling, and muscle spasms and helps the healing process begin. Most people only need immobilization for a limited time. Following are some devices used for immobilization:
    • Slings, to immobilize the upper body, including the arms and shoulders.
    • Splints, braces, and casts, to support and protect injured bones and soft tissue. Splints and braces generally offer less support and protection than a cast, so they are not always a treatment option.
  • Surgery. Surgery is needed in some cases to repair torn connective tissues or to realign fractured bones. The vast majority of musculoskeletal sports injuries do not require surgery.

Treatment of Minor Injuries

If you do not have any symptoms of a serious injury, it is probably safe to treat the injury at home—at least at first. If pain or other symptoms persist or worsen, you should check with a health care provider. Use the R-I-C-E method to relieve pain and inflammation and to speed healing:

  • Rest. Limit activities that involve using the injured area for at least a day or two. Try to avoid putting weight on or using the injured joint or limb.
  • Ice. Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, four to eight times a day. Use a cold pack, ice bag, or plastic bag filled with crushed ice and wrapped in a towel. To avoid cold injury and frostbite, do not apply the ice for more than 20 minutes. (Note: Do not use heat immediately after an injury. This tends to increase internal bleeding or swelling. Heat can be used later to relieve muscle tension and promote relaxation.)
  • Compression. Keeping pressure on the injured area may help reduce swelling. An elastic bandage works well, but do not wrap it so tightly that it cuts off the circulation.
  • Elevation. If possible, keep the injured ankle, knee, elbow, or wrist elevated on a pillow, above the level of the heart, to help decrease swelling.

Other treatments may include over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and, rarely, medications, which can help treat pain and swelling.


After the injury has healed, you may need to complete a rehabilitation program before returning to the activity that caused the injury. A physical therapist or physiatrist will make a plan aimed at rebuilding strength and range of motion of the injured part of the body, and easing any residual pain. Most rehabilitation plans include exercises that you do at home, in addition to those you do in the therapist’s office. The therapist may also treat the injured area with cold, heat, ultrasound, aquatic, or massage therapy. A rehabilitation program can help you return to your previous level of activity and reduce the chance of reinjury.

Who Treats Sports Injuries?

Sports injuries are usually initially seen and treated by:

  • Emergency physicians, who care for patients in emergency rooms (for serious injuries).
  • Primary health care providers, including family doctors, internists, and pediatricians, who treat problems as they arise and coordinate care between the different specialized health care providers (for non-serious injuries). Many of these individuals may have obtained additional specialty training in the nonsurgical management of sports injuries.

You may also see:

  • Orthopaedic surgeons, doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating injuries to bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves.
  • Pain management specialists, physicians who are trained in the evaluation and treatment of pain.
  • Physiatrists, doctors who specialize in nonsurgical management of musculoskeletal conditions and can develop a plan of care, including rehabilitation.
  • Physical therapists who can help you:
    • Develop a rehabilitation program.
    • Strengthen muscles and joints.
    • Prevent further injury.
  • Sports medicine specialists, specialists who work with athletes and others with musculoskeletal injuries.

Living With Sports Injuries

Most sports injuries respond well to treatment and rehabilitation, enabling you to return to normal activities. But if pain persists, seek help. Your primary health care provider can manage most injury-related problems and he or she may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon, a sports medicine specialist, or a pain management specialist.

Once an injury heals, it is important to continue some type of regular exercise.

  • Take some simple steps to avoid injury, such as choosing an activity appropriate for your fitness level and gradually increasing the intensity, and using the proper equipment and technique.
  • Learn how to spot injuries early on, and how to treat the minor ones at home.
  • Seek medical care when you need it.

By following these steps, you can gain the health benefits of regular exercise while lowering the chance of a serious injury.

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