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Common Injuries in Sports and How Professional Athletes Deal With Them
Professional athletes are more comfortable watching true crime documentaries than they are watching a replay of a career-ending injury suffered by another athlete. They know that these injuries are always a possibility, always lurking in the background.
Tennis players can be injured just as easily in practice as during the Wimbledon finals. NFL players can incur an injury in a postseason scrimmage that keeps them from playing for the entire regular season.
Some of it is the luck of the draw, but often, there are ways to prevent these injuries. For instance, weight lifting and strength workouts support the tendons, ligaments, joints, and bones.
Here are the most common injuries across all sports, who has suffered from them, and some theories about how they can be prevented.
There are some in the medical field, particularly physical therapists, who consider the shoulder the “weakest” part of the human physique. And yet, what sport does not put repeated strain on this area?
The shoulder can be dislocated, ligaments can be sprained, and muscles in the area can be strained to the point that the athlete is out the game for weeks, even months.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova tore her rotator cuff and tried to heal it in physical therapy. However, the injury remained stubborn, and she had to turn to a surgical procedure instead.
Her tear was serious enough that some considered it could mean the end of her career. However, a few years later, she was back at the top of the rankings, despite experiencing her fair share of tennis injuries.
Quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints hurt his shoulder diving after a fumble. Because of the shoulder injury he incurred, his team at the time didn’t want to re-sign Brees for the amount of pay he expected. The team was too concerned that his injury would never heal perfectly.
Brees used shoulder surgery to repair the damage. He has been able to match his pre-injury athleticism, an outlook not foreseen by the team that doubted his recovery. The quarterback has been playing professional football for two decades now.
We’ve all heard the term “rotator cuff injury.” The rotator cuff is the area that supports the shoulder joint. It’s made up of tendons and muscles that work to keep the arm bone tucked properly into the shoulder socket.
These injuries come from repeated overhead movement. Tennis players, football quarterbacks, golfers, gymnasts, and lacrosse players all need to engage in forceful, repeated overhead movements, and thus are at increased risk of this painful condition.
However, repeated stress to the shoulder that does not involve overhead movements can also create shoulder problems. Consider a football or rugby tackle whose main goal is to use one shoulder to bring down an opponent.
Between practice and games, a tackle might slam his or her shoulder against a powerful object a thousand times over the course of three or four seasons.
Some Suggested Treatments
The general consensus is that icing the area immediately to curtail swelling is helpful, as is the use of anti-inflammatory pain killers. If the shoulder pain persists for more than two weeks, a visit to a doctor or physical therapist is recommended.
The hamstring is a collection of muscles that help the leg kick out and bend back. It’s not as complex an anatomical system as the wrist or the shoulder, but it causes its fair share of athletic heartbreak, all the same.
When famed NFL quarterback Michael Vick had to come out of a game with a hamstring injury, he thought he’d bounce right back. Finally, he had to admit that it was “worse than he thought.” Like a tennis elbow, healing an injured hamstring is a collaboration between rest and time.
In 2017, a hamstring tear ended the sprinting career of Olympian Usain Bolt, known as “the fastest man in the world.” This is the kind of uncertainty and agony that the professional athlete must face down at every competition, in every practice.
You can get a hamstring pull in a number of ways. Overstretching, under-stretching, and even a hard whack on the back of the thigh can create a strain so painful that some athletes collapse to the ground and can’t get back up without help.
LA Times columnist Chris Erskine has stated that a professional athlete is “better off with a broken bone than a torn hamstring.”
Hamstring injuries range from grade 1 (somewhat mild) to grade 3 (severe). Recovery can take between weeks and months, depending on the severity of the tear.
Usain Bolt’s hamstring injury required three months of rehab. Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova has had to pull out of lucrative tournaments due to a tender hamstring area and the need to rest the leg.
Sports with sudden starts and stops increase the likelihood of hamstring pain. Tennis and football require multiple sudden starts, as do cricket and baseball.
The next time you think you don’t have time to warm up, think of how many millions of dollars have been lost for want of a quarter hour more of stretching and light movement.
Some Suggested Treatments
Ice, compression, and elevation are all recommended to reduce swelling, as are taking anti-inflammatory pain medications.
In order to prevent scar tissue from forming and impeding a return to full leg mobility, the leg must be alternately worked and rested, worked and rested. A physical therapist is one of the best types of medical professionals to supervise and guide this process.
Also called golf elbow, this injury is not confined to just one sport. It can be found in NBA players, Olympic curling champions, and amateur lacrosse players.
If you haven’t experienced this injury, it’s hard to imagine how uncomfortable it can be and how long it can take to heal in some cases.
Unlike the biceps and the thigh muscles, which are easy to keep strong with barbells and squats, the elbow is not one of the body parts we pay much attention to, until something goes wrong.
When Tiger Woods contracted tennis elbow (of course, he calls it “golfer’s elbow”), he was forced to miss the AT&T National Tournament. He lost his share of the tournament’s $6.5 million purse that year.
WWE fighter John Cena was forced to stop all activity to deal with an elbow injury that didn’t just involve strain but had pieces of bone circulating around the joint. By all accounts, it was an excessively painful condition. However, it healed fully, and he was back on the mat soon after.
Quarterback Tom Brady suffered elbow strain in the 2019 season, forcing him to miss practice. As you can see, elbow injury is not confined to one sport. Golf swings, wrestling grapples, and throwing football passes can all strain the area.
Note: tennis elbow and golfer’s elbow do differ slightly. The both involve the elbow joint, of course, but tennis players feel the pain on the outside of the arm, while golfers feel the pain on the inside, between the wrist and the elbow.
Golfer’s elbow is sometimes called “suitcase elbow.” We’ve all lifted too-heavy suitcases before and felt the strain from that much weight “hanging” from our elbows. That gives you a clue to what’s happening inside the arm—a sudden, forceful requirement on the joint can cause pain, and that’s exactly what athletes do, day after day, hour after hour.
Overuse can strain the forearm muscles, the ones used to grip a tennis racquet or golf club, which in turn can create the elbow pain.
Another cause is poor body mechanics. Imagine a bodybuilder at the gym. If he or she has well-developed biceps, triceps, and forearm muscles and goes to lift a barbell with a weight that is proper for the lifter, then it’s the muscles that will do the work.
Now imagine a person brand-new to weightlifting. She excitedly loads weights on a barbell and hoists it up using her body’s momentum. Her muscles didn’t do the lifting; her body movement helped her swing the bar up.
She then lowers the weight and lets it “hang” from her arms, straining her elbow and shoulder joints because she doesn’t have the muscular strength yet to hold the weights using her muscles alone. This is poor mechanics and can create the painful elbow injury.
In Tiger Woods’ case, the cause was overuse. He has coaches to make sure his mechanics are picture-perfect because he needs longevity in the game to sustain his career and income.
Some Suggested Treatments
First, stop playing your sport. The elbow needs rest.
Then, icing the elbow is recommended by some medical professionals. The consensus for the ice treatment is about four times a day, for 15 minutes per session.
Wearing a firm brace to stabilize the area is also recommended. Rest the area as much as possible and consult a physician to discuss the severity of the issue and to decide how long your rehabilitation is likely to take.
Some athletes are back in play weeks after incurring the injury, but some rehabilitations can take up to a year.
Concussions have been all over the news lately because of the percentage of high school and college football players who have suffered from this injury, despite the use of hard helmets that are designed to protect the head.
A doctor once told me, “If you hit your head and the area bulges out, you’ll likely be okay. But if the injured area is dented in, then you have concussion to worry about.”
A concussion, which is also known as “mild traumatic brain injury,” occurs when something strikes the head with enough severity to affect the skull. The person who is hit may or may not pass out.
According to the Mayo Clinic, falls and violent sports are the primary causes of this issue. The injured person can get headaches and have his or her balance, memory, and coordination affected. Most people recover fully from a concussion. A few, however, do not.
Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn once incurred a concussion during training. She did ski in a race soon after, but she admitted that she had been “in a fog.”
NFL quarterback Brett Favre suffered a concussion after being tackled in a game between the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants. Favre later stated that the rest of the game after he was hit was a bit fuzzy for him, with some moments that he couldn’t remember at all.
New York Mets player Mike Piazza was hit by a ball and suffered a concussion, even though he was wearing the helmet that batsmen wear to prevent just this sort of injury. There are two takeaways from this: 1) Roger Clemens, who threw the fast ball, has an impressive arm, and 2) no helmet invented thus far guarantees 100% safety.
Some Suggested Treatments
Because the brain is involved, you can’t self-treat a concussion like you could tennis elbow. A doctor must be consulted to determine if one’s cognitive function has been altered, if there is possible internal bleeding in the head, and how long an athlete must refrain from activity.
You may need to be hospitalized for a couple of reasons: to be observed, and also to see how you wake up in the morning and how quickly you become alert.
How Some Professional Athletes Seek to Avoid Injury
Tom Brady does yoga and meditation. Although the meditation can be said to calm his mind and create focus and doesn’t have an impact on injury, there are proponents of meditation that say people who practice it make better decisions and think more clearly. This could be a factor in staying safe and effective in a football game.
Yoga, of course, creates flexibility in the body. Flexibility prevents tears and sprains because the musculature of the body can already move in the required direction and isn’t so tight and resistant that it “fights” against the movement.
Basketball superstar LeBron James has been doing yoga for years, as has Olympic ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
A number of NFL players have moved to a vegan, plant-based diet to keep their bodies cleaner, leaner, and faster on the field. The ability to twist and move away from trouble is a strong preventative motivation.
A Final Word
Injury is as much a part of sports as Gatorade and hot dogs. There will likely never been a solution that prevents 100% of injuries. The body is made up of too many moving parts that are subject to twisting, spinning, jumping, and sudden collisions.
However, if you work out and have uncompromising sleep and napping habits like Cristiano Ronaldo, you can keep your body from falling prey to unnecessary injury. Strong musculature, a flexible body, and sufficient rest may be the best prescription we know of to combat this lurking threat.