Oct 22, 2018, 10:16:35 AM CDT Apr 15, 2020, 10:23:00 AM CDT

Identifying and treating acute sports injuries

A Children's Health orthopedic surgeon discusses the difference between acute and chronic sports injuries, and how to treat sports injuries

Athlete holding knee Athlete holding knee

When an athlete gets injured, it can be frightening – but it is also a common occurrence. High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries each year. Often, it can be difficult to know when a sports injury needs immediate attention versus when it's best to take a "wait and see" approach.

John Polousky, M.D., a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, offers important insight about acute sports injuries, including the most common injuries in athletes and when to seek treatment.

What is an acute sports injury?

An acute sports injury is something that happens suddenly as a result of a fall, hit or other type of trauma. "It can be connected to a specific moment – a bad hit in football, a rough fall in soccer, a missed landing in gymnastics or another event in a game or practice," Dr. Polousky says.

In addition to connecting the injury to a specific time and place, key hallmarks of acute sports injuries include:

  • Constant pain
  • Significant loss of function
  • Swelling

What is the difference between an acute injury and a chronic injury?

"A chronic injury is something that has been going on for two weeks or more," Dr. Polousky explains. "You can't usually pinpoint what you did or when you did it, with a chronic injury."

Chronic injuries are often a result of overuse or repetitive motion in sports: a pitcher repeatedly throwing, a runner's constant wear and tear on knees or shins, or a swimmer's strokes causing tendinitis or pain in the shoulder. Typically, pain from overuse injuries worsens during activity, but may subside during rest or when the injured area isn't being used.

What are the most common acute injuries in sports?

"The most common injuries can really vary based on the athlete's age," says Dr. Polousky. "Younger children, under the age of 14, are more likely to get fractures because of open growth plates which makes their bones more susceptible. It's less common to see ligament injuries, such as ACL tears in these athletes."

Common sports injuries among athletes under age 14

Parents and coaches are often concerned about fractures in young athletes, but Dr. Polousky reassures adults that fractures are easily treated. The most common fractures in athletes under age 14 include:

  • Ankle
  • Elbow
  • Forearm
  • Knee
  • Wrist

"There are a lot of misconceptions about broken bones, and it can often be difficult to tell if a child has a fracture – unless the bone is obviously out of place," he says. "Small fractures in children are like an ankle sprain in adults. It needs to be addressed, but there won't be any lasting damage."

One telltale sign of a broken bone is that the child won't put any weight on the injury or use it in day-to-day activities. Dr. Polousky encourages parents to visit an emergency room, urgent care or when available, a clinic dedicated to sports injuries if they suspect a child has a broken bone.

Common sports injuries among teens

"Older athletes over the age of 14 can also experience broken bones, but other injuries are more common among this age group," Dr. Polousky explains.

The most common acute injuries in older athletes include:

  • Ankle fractures
  • Ankle sprains
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury
  • Collar bone dislocations
  • Fractures
  • Kneecap dislocations
  • Shoulder dislocations

How do you treat acute injuries?

Treatment for acute sports injuries can vary widely, based on the type of injury and its severity.

"When the injury first occurs, it can sometimes be hard to assess because of swelling, and in smaller children, their reaction to the pain," explains Dr. Polousky. “Unless there is something noticeably wrong, it's often best to wait a few minutes for things to settle down. Younger athletes, when calm, are better able to explain how they feel."

RICE is often the best first line of treatment for minor acute sports injuries:

  • Rest the injury
  • Ice the injury once every hour for 20 minutes
  • Compress the injury by wrapping it with an ace bandage or immobilize with a splint
  • Elevate the injury above the heart to decrease blood flow and reduce swelling

When should you see a doctor for a sports injury?

When injuries are serious or if there is an obvious abnormality of the limb, take the athlete to the nearest emergency department. For minor acute injuries, like possible strains and sprains, you can take a more conservative approach to treatment. Apply RICE, and make an appointment with a physician or visit a sports injury clinic that can help properly diagnose and treat those injuries.

If you think your child has experienced an acute sports injury, the Children's Health Andrews Institute offers a walk-in clinic so you can receive care quickly and effectively. With on-site casting and imaging, your athlete is treated in one convenient location.

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The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our wide-range of services available to help athletes stay healthy and improve their game.

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