Preventing Sports Injuries

golfer on green

With spring in full swing, it's a great time to play a round of golf, set of tennis, or game of volleyball. But enjoyable as these sports may be, they can also cause serious injuries--especially if your body has not been properly conditioned before you begin playing.

Among the most common sports injuries are lateral epicondylitis (a.k.a. "tennis elbow"), and tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL, found inside the knee joint). Tennis elbow, which occurs frequently in golf and tennis players, results from the stressful forces required to grip and swing a golf club or tennis racket. Most cases of tennis elbow are due to overuse of muscles, especially muscles that have not been adequately prepared for the stresses of the sport.

ACL injuries are often experienced by athletes playing soccer, volleyball, tennis, or other sports that involve jumping and pivoting. Sudden deceleration or turning can cause the ACL to tear.

Both of these injuries are more common in women than men. Because of their greater relative joint laxity and lower muscle mass in the upper body, active females are more prone to develop elbow and wrist injuries. Women also experience ACL tears more often than men--up to nine times more often, by some reports--in part because of the lower relative strength of their hamstrings compared to their quadriceps.

If left untreated, both types of injuries can require surgery. However, there are steps both women and men can take to reduce their risk of these sports injuries.

To prevent tennis elbow:

  • Work with a golf or tennis professional or sports medicine professional to correct poor grip and/or swing mechanics. Ask about simple exercises you can do to strengthen your hand and wrist joints.
  • Identify and treat injury symptoms early. Tennis elbow starts slowly with pain on the outside of the elbow only when gripping or lifting overhand. If you experience this pain, take a break for a few weeks. Rest, ice, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications or acetaminophen will help the pain, but it's even more important to strengthen the forearm muscles and correct bad body mechanics that caused the problem in the first place. If pain persists, a cortisone injection or surgery may be required to treat the condition.

To prevent ACL tears:

  • Do strength and flexibility exercises all year, not just at the start of the season. It's especially important to stretch and strengthen the hip muscles, hamstrings and quadriceps. To stretch the quadriceps, stand up, lift one leg and pull the foot toward your buttocks until you feel a good stretch in your front thigh, and hold for five to ten seconds. (You may want to hold onto a chair or lean against a wall for support.) Repeat with the opposite leg. Do six reps on each side. To stretch the hamstrings, sit on the ground with your legs in a V, one leg out and the other bent. Lean over your outstretched leg, holding the toes, until you feel a good stretch. Hold for five to ten seconds. Repeat on the opposite leg. Do six reps on each side. Strengthening exercises for the hips, quadriceps, and hamstrings can be performed with simple elastic bands, ankle weights, or machines at a gym.
  • Learn and practice good landing technique, bending the hips and knees adequately and using the arms to help land in a balanced position.
  • Learn to do a three-step "cut." Instead of the traditional "cut"--a pivoting move in which the athlete plants the foot and changes directions quickly while running--use instead a "three-step-cut," in which you decelerate in a more controlled fashion and change directions in three steps instead of one.
  • Visit a sports professional or sports medicine specialist, who can help evaluate your needs and teach you the proper techniques outlined above.

Information provided by Duke University Medical Center.

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