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Treating common athletic injuries

July 17, 2019 | Christopher Kroner, MD
woman rubbing leg in pain

Whether you’re an athlete, weekend warrior or just someone going about normal daily activities, it’s not uncommon to experience pain or injury when working out or playing sports.

Common sports injuries

Here are some of the most common problems I see in my sports medicine practice at UCI Health.

Runner’s knee

Runner’s knee is a friction-and-tracking problem involving the kneecap. It is caused when the muscles around the knee become unbalanced after many, many steps.

We see it in runners, hikers and people who stand a lot. We treat it with physical therapy to build better balance and strength.

Tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a degenerative condition that’s not really in the elbow. Rather it is a problem affecting the extensor tendon and three different muscles in the forearm.

It’s an issue related to gripping the tennis racquet. We find it not just in tennis players, but also in many other people who engage in repetitive turning and squeezing motions.

People try to get relief by using devices such as compression elbow straps, which can make an aching elbow feel better. But the only way to really help fix the problem is to strengthen the tendon and muscles.

As a first step, we often immobilize the area with a wrist splint worn during sleep for a few weeks. I also recommend stretching and grip exercises. Physical therapy, injections or surgery may also be options.

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is an intensely painful condition that is the most common problem people experience with their heel or arch.

It’s caused by tightness and inflammation in the fibrous tissue along the bottom of the foot called the plantar fascia, which connects the heel to the toes.

I usually prescribe arch supports for plantar fasciitis patients with flat feet. That plus a lot of calf stretching works well. But it can take weeks, even months for the inflammation and pain to go away. If that fails to provide relief, injection treatments may also help.

Low-back pain

A huge percentage of the adult population — about 70% — will experience at least one episode of debilitating low-back pain in their lifetime.

The problem almost always involves the soft tissue, which means that X-rays and MRIs are rarely helpful in diagnosing the cause of the pain.

For most people, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for the pain to resolve.

Movement is generally the key to getting better. We have seen a lot of evidence showing that people with back pain actually get worse by lying in bed.

Coping with everyday injuries

These are the most common issues I see, but we all suffer a range of strains, pulls and sprains throughout our lives. Here are some tips on how to care for these common injuries at home:

  • Apply ice to decrease swelling in 10-minute to 15-minute increments over the first few days after a strain or sprain.
  • Get moving. Even with badly sprained ankle, you should start walking on it as soon as you can. That way, you’re more likely to reduce your pain and get better faster.
  • Once you start exercising again, apply ice after the workout, not before.
  • Use heat sparingly for back tightness or spasms, but not for other types of sprains or injuries. Heat increases blood flow and inflammation and increase swelling at the sprain site.
  • Apply cooling creams or gels to soothe the injury. Although these topical treatments may alleviate pain, they do not heal the injury.
  • Take ibuprofen or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to alleviate the pain. It’s best to take NSAIDS in short intervals they pose a risk of injury to the kidneys, gut and heart with longer term use.

Painkillers and injury risk

Patients often ask me if taking an over-the-counter painkiller like ibuprofen will dull the pain to the point where they’ll push through it and risk additional injury.

That’s not going to happen. Ibuprofen is not magic, it will not numb you to pain. Your body will tell you when you are pushing too hard.

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