Finding a sport you enjoy is half the battle in staying physically active. Whether it’s running, racquetball or recreation league soccer, once you find an activity you like it’s much easier to maintain a regular exercise routine. However, without proper precautions, too much of a good thing might put you at risk for overuse injuries.
What is an overuse injury?
While overuse injuries can happen to anyone who is regularly active, many are known by the activity they are most commonly associated with, including tennis elbow, swimmer’s shoulder and runner’s knee. Unlike acute injuries such as fractures or strains, which are often caused by a single traumatic event, overuse injuries develop slowly with regular, repetitive motion.
“Training and technique errors are often the culprit in sports injuries,” said Dr. William Ward of Novant Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine. “Athletes are either taking on too much new activity too rapidly or they are using poor form. Both can put strain on the muscles, tendons and bones and lead to overuse injury.”
Preventing overuse injuries
Sometimes sports injuries are out of the athlete’s control, but many overuse injuries can be prevented.
Use proper form and gear, says Ward. “If you’re new to an activity or it’s been a while since you’ve been on the field, consider taking a lesson or working with a coach who can assess your form. Get professionally fitted for your shoes and other gear, and know how often you need to replace them.”
Pace yourself. “It’s great when patients get excited about exercise, but trying to take on too much too quickly can get you in trouble,” said Ward. “My biggest advice is to ease into the new activity gradually and let your body get accommodated to the new demands you are placing on it.” Try to spread your activities out throughout the week and give yourself time for a proper warm-up and cool-down.
Gradually increase your activity level. Dr. Ward recommends increasing the intensity or duration of your activity by no more than 10 to 20 percent each week. “Pay attention to your body. If it hurts, it may be telling you that it is being stressed more than it can handle.”
Mix it up. Protect your body by adding variety to your routine. “If you play in a soccer league, try swimming or cycling on your off days instead of running,” said Ward. Find room for strength and stability training in your schedule. “Building up muscle will help make your body less vulnerable to injury,” he said.
Treating overuse injuries
If you suspect that you have an overuse injury, consult your doctor. Be sure to tell your doctor if you've recently made changes in your workout, including technique, intensity, duration, frequency or types of exercises. Identifying the cause of your overuse injury will help you correct the problem and avoid repeating it.
“Medications can help with pain and inflammation, but in order to fully heal, you will probably need to take a break from your activity,” said Ward. “Your doctor can help you determine what alternatives will be safe for you to do until you can work back up to your regular training schedule.”
Ward cautions that overuse injuries can be slow to heal. “When you think you’re ready to get back in the game, ask your doctor to check that you've completely regained strength, motion, flexibility and balance before beginning your activity again.” Athletes who have recovered from injury also need to take special precautions to avoid future injury.