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The Top 5 Injuries That Sideline NBA Players

By Jennifer Hassan in NBA
| December 24, 2020 6:36 am PDT
Most common injuries that sideline nba players

When basketball was first invented in New England, using a soccer ball tossed into fruit baskets, it was primarily a game of running teams working to shoot the ball into the goal.

Injuries would have been confined to shin splints, hamstring strains, and soreness of the Achilles tendon. Maybe an occasional bruise from someone’s elbow.

Now, the game of basketball, which began so innocently on a rainy day at a YMCA facility, has become nearly as physical as football. Sportsbooks now consider injury potential to be as prophetic of making the postseason as the quality of the coach and the skill of the team.

It’s common to see players tossed, trampled, thrown to the floor. Elbows to the eye, split cheekbones, and teeth knocked to the boards are the new physical standard for the game.

There are two primary ligaments in the knee. We’ve all heard of ACL tears, but in 2012, Knicks player Baron Davis tore both of his knee ligaments in a moment of pain that ended his time in the NBA.

In 2007, Shaun Livingston of the Clippers damaged just about every component of one leg when he came down in less-than-ideal form after shooting for the hoop.

Below are the 5 most common basketball injuries NBA players experience.

Face Cuts

Not as common as ankle sprains, I include this injury first in the list because it is almost exclusive to basketball. If you review the top injuries suffered by football players and the top hockey injuries, you’ll notice some crossover. This injury, however, is unique to this list.

Faces and necks getting raked. Blood trickling down into the jersey. These are not rarities on the boards.

The NBA has not yet instituted any grooming rules regarding fingernails. LeBron James was famous for getting pedicures before games, but it’s not the toenails that are the danger on the court. Every player has ten fingernails that can split skin and poke an eye.

Houston Rockets player James Harden sustained a cut on the inside of an eyelid and fell to the floor in agony. Fred VanVleet sustained a bloody injury and waited for the medical team.

Brandon Roy, formerly of the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers, estimates that he has thirty scars on his body from bloody scratches he sustained during games. They are on his face and neck and elsewhere on his body. He claims that some viewers think he’s had stitches, some of the scars are so significant.

Dennis Smith Jr. of the Mavericks has stated that his girlfriend is becoming impatient with all the scratches he receives to the face.

Ray Allen, formerly of the Heat, Celtics, Supersonics, and Bucks, wore a sleeve on his shooting arm because he was so tired of having his skin ripped up.

On-Court Weapons?

There is a buzz that players don’t groom their fingernails during the season because they can be used as additional deterrents to opposing players. It’s a dangerous practice that can work against a player and even shorten his career.

The NBA has a dress code for players who are not on the court playing. Perhaps they should consider a personal grooming code as well.

Knee Sprain and Inflammation

According to the National Institute of Health, sprained ankles are more common in the NBA than knee sprains, but knee sprains (one type of which is “patellofemoral inflammation,” or “runner’s knee”) keep players out of the game for longer.

But first, what is the difference between a sprain and a strain?

  • A sprain involves ligaments, which are the connective tissues that connect one bone to another
  • A strain involves muscle

Runner’s knee is caused when the body pounds on the joint. Constantly having to act as a sort of trampoline for the body, the joint can become overworked and inflamed. But it’s not the only risk to the knee.

The human body is currently designed for explosive bursts forward, but sudden twists to the side will place intense strain on the knee joint. The two ligaments within the knee, the MCL and the ACL, can be strained or even torn.

Check With Your Doctor in 100,000 Years

Robot Playing Basketball

We may evolve to have knee joints that are as multi-directional as shoulder joints, but until we do develop this physical apparatus, we’ll have to rely on orthopedic specialists.

Because of the time to heal, taking one game off is not generally sufficient. Chicago Bulls player Max Strus came out of the season with a knee injury, as did Pistons player Blake Griffin.

Greg Oden of the Trail Blazers and Heat saw his NBA career falter and then close as a string of knee injuries continued to haunt him.

Although strengthening the thigh muscles can significantly reduce the chances of injury to the knee, there is nothing that will make the knee bulletproof.

Just as there are thousands of components in the human body, and there are ten players on the court, there are millions of permutations of active play contained within all the stopping, starting, jumping, twisting, ducking, and stretching.

Every Game Is a Game of Chance

No one can accurately forecast all the moves that a player will engage in on the court. There are many that haven’t been invented yet. As we evolve, so does the game, and so do the injuries.

Unfortunately, when it’s the knee that’s injured, it’s critical to stay off the joint until it’s fully healed. Otherwise, it will be further irritated. When one is a professional athlete who is expected to heal quickly, return to play, and justify a high salary, taking adequate time off to heal can be difficult.

Sprained Ankles

Sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it? Like something a grandma might sustain in a competitive walk-a-thon.

However, Steph Curry has suffered through numerous ankle sprains, including a couple that needed surgery. He reportedly has some stability issues in one ankle, and this makes it his most vulnerable point of injury. Curry has missed big chunks of seasons due to his wobbly ankle.

Kobe Bryant missed games because of a sprained ankle, as have a host of other NBA players.

There are three grades of ankle sprains. We’ve all likely experienced a grade one ankle sprain: pain, swelling, and lack of use from hours to days. A grade two ankle sprain results from a ligament failing, or tearing, and could keep a player out for weeks. A grade three tear results in the loss of use of the foot and may require surgery.

The NIH estimates a 25% chance for a player to suffer a sprained ankle in any given season. If you’ve had an ankle sprain before, you are 1.5 times more likely to experience another.

Before the season even begins, dozens of league players go down with an injury during training camp. This most common ailment can and does affect teams’ seasons and sometimes playoff chances.

However, there has yet to be a way to brace the ankle to prevent sprain while still allowing full range of motion and agility. Until there is, this is the reality.

Lumbar Strains

We’ve all seen a hoop player in possession of the ball twist violently from one side to the other to try to get a clear shot under the waving arms of a defender. It’s this motion that leads so many NBA players to the sidelines with a painful lumbar strain.

The lumbar region of the spine sits within the lower back. It’s the region that people place their hands against when they lean backward, seeking to ease the tension in these muscles.

It’s this tension that’s most associated with people who work on their feet all day, such as food servers and construction workers. In fact, the Chicago Bulls doctor, Frank Phillips, states that this is the number one injury among all Americans.

But sometimes, we forget that athletes also work on their feet all day. Furthermore, basketball strategy involves a great deal of hunching over the ball, protecting, and then suddenly flinging the spine in the opposite direction as the player attempts a shot.

So, in addition to the rapid twisting from side to side mentioned above, we also see that sudden crouched-over to bowed backward motion that affects the lower back.

So, How Do You Know If It’s Strained?

There may be muscle spasms in the lower back if a player has incurred a lumbar strain. Pain may radiate out from the area, sometimes far down the leg. The player will feel pain when moving, but sitting and resting will alleviate the pain.

How Does the NBA Treat a Lumbar Strain?

The player must stop playing and practicing. He need not stay in bed, but the muscles of the lower back must be at rest.

This means he can do his grocery shopping, but if someone behind him in the store yells his name (e.g., a fan), the player must ignore that person or use the anti-theft mirrors on the ceiling to say hello.

If the player whips around, he’s cut short the healing process, and he may need to extend his rehabilitation period. The lesson? Ask someone else to run your errands so you can get back to the season.

Anti-inflammatory painkillers will likely be recommended by the team doctor. Muscle relaxers will occasionally be prescribed, but leagues are currently very leery of anything that has addiction potential.

A Variation on the Lower Back Strain

Justise Winslow, currently of the Memphis Grizzlies, came out of the season at the end of 2019 due to what was thought to be a lower back strain but was later considered a bone bruise after an MRI was closely scrutinized by his medical team.

A bone bruise is worse than it sounds; it’s trauma to a bone that does not warrant the term “fracture” but which still involves pain and swelling and blood and fluid buildup.

Thus, it’s possible that what are considered lumbar strains may occasionally be bone bruises.

Hamstring Pulls

The word “hamstring” has nothing to do with pork. Four hundred years ago, the word “ham” meant the crooked part above the knee.

The hamstring is not one muscle, but rather a group of muscles in the back of the thigh. When you lift your heel toward your buttocks, you are using the hamstring muscles. If you are still unsure where the muscle is, take a fast sprint without warming up. You’ll soon find it.

It is rumored that in the medieval era, captors would slice through the hamstring muscles of prisoners to prevent escape. Not surprisingly, this is called “hamstringing” someone. Such is the importance of this muscle group in total body movement.

Unlike in the middle ages, modern NBA players hamstring themselves. Unfortunately, these injuries can take from weeks to months to repair.

What injures the hamstring?

  • Playing with cold muscles – Muscles that are not warmed up can’t flex and stretch with ease. Attempting to stretch them past what they can do in the moment may cause strains and even tears to the hamstring, which could ultimately require surgery
  • Too much sudden tension on the muscle group – You can be the fittest person in the world, but it doesn’t mean your muscles can stretch to the moon and back. There will be a limit to a muscle’s flexibility. Moving beyond that limit will result in injury. Basketball requires “cutting,” i.e., changing speed and direction with rapidity. This places incredible strain on the hamstring muscles (as well as knees, ankles, and lumbar areas)
  • Previous hamstring issues – As with many injuries, tear or strain your hamstring once, and you become more prone to re-injury. Once the muscle has been compromised, it has to work harder to achieve the energy, strength, and stability of a healthy muscle

Treating Hammy Injuries

As with all injuries, the body needs rest. Ice, compression, and anti-inflammatory painkillers are also used in the short-term to treat the pain and inflammation of a hamstring injury.

Later, (very) gentle stretches are undertaken. Massage may be recommended to prevent scar tissue from forming and to encourage blood flow to the area.

If the hamstring was torn, surgery may be required, as noted above.

One Common Theme in Prevention

We all know sports players who have terrible form but who get the job done.

There are golfers who jerk one hip out when driving down a fairway, baseball players who clench the bat and strain their necks when swinging, weight lifters who jerk barbells up and then swing the weight into place instead of controlling the movement with their musculature.

All of these examples are biomechanical fails. The athlete didn’t learn proper form when he or she entered the sport, and so continues to place unnecessary strain on the body every time they play.

This is one of the main reasons for injury. Proper technique while pursuing the goal, rather than just going for the goal in any manner possible, will keep an athlete healthier, longer. And if the athlete is a pro, that can mean millions of more dollars.

Good Form Creates:

Good Form Creates Balance and Directional Power
  • Balance – Balance keeps the body’s weight and the pressure it’s putting on the bones and joints in reasonable proportion to the movement. An imbalance may put the body’s entire weight on one delicate bone structure in the foot, or on an awkwardly-placed knee joint. One snap and you’re out of the game
  • Directional Power – Yes, you have power, but is all of the power you’re generating going toward your in-the-moment goal of taking a shot or defending a play? With incorrect form, you may be using much of your leg strength to stabilize yourself, instead of pushing off the ground during a rebound. With the correct form, you engage all of your muscles toward your objective. It makes you that much more powerful.

So when your coach tells you to widen your stance, keep your chin up and shoulders back, and to breathe, there’s a reason.

Yo! Yoga!

At least one NBA team keeps a yoga instructor on staff for the sole purpose of reducing injuries among the team.

The Orlando Magic works with a yoga trainer for increased range of motion, reduced risk of tissue damage, and improved breathing.

Why is breathing correctly part of the equation? Breath affects the ribcage, which affects the alignment of the spine and shoulders. Considering that the Mayo Clinic calls the shoulder joint the most vulnerable joint in the world of sports, proper breathing can work to prevent strains.

Trainer Dana Santas emphasizes that our breathing should not remain in the chest but should reach far down into the belly. This trainer, who works with NBA and MLB teams, states that you can’t properly condition your core if you don’t start with proper breathing technique.

It looks like big-league teams believe enough in the theory—and the results—to hop on the bandwagon.

In Conclusion

There are thousands of components that make up the human body. Ideally, they all work together comfortably and as intended during sport. Clearly, that’s not always the case.

Interestingly, injury tends to occur at just a few “flashpoints.” For basketball players, it’s the parts of the body listed above that are seen most frequently on the league’s injury report.

For other sports, the joints and bones on the list may vary. The knee, however, tends to be a staple on such lists since it supports so much weight and since most sports (with the possible exceptions of bowling and fencing) require sharp twisting motions.

Until sports medicine becomes more streamlined and coaches learn how to better reduce injuries among their players, each professional team will continue to keep several orthopedic medical professionals on staff.

Injuries are always something to bear in mind when betting on the NBA, or indeed any sport.



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