Oct 22, 2018, 10:16:35 AM CDT Feb 3, 2023, 1:07:31 PM CST

Identifying and treating acute sports injuries

Learn 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.

Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Children’s Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, offers important insight into 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 occurs as a result of a fall, hit or another type of trauma.

"It is the result of a specific motion, movement or activity, like twisting an ankle during basketball or getting hit during football," says Dr. Smurawa. "It can also be caused by a non-contact injury, where an athlete lands and twists a joint."

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?

Chronic injuries are often a result of overuse or repetitive motion in sports: 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.

"A chronic sports injury is usually the result of ongoing stress to a musculoskeletal structure," says Dr. Smurawa. "These injuries are more common in high school athletes in sports like swimming or baseball."

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 acute sports injuries vary based on an athlete's age.

"The younger athletes, especially those under age 12, are more likely to have injuries to the bone, especially to the growth plates," says Dr. Smurawa. "When we talk about older athletes, their bones are stronger, so we start to see more injuries to ligaments and joints, like sprains and ACL tears."

Common sports injuries among athletes under age 14

Fractures are one of the most common sports injuries in children age 12 and under. The most common fractures occur in the:

  • Ankle
  • Elbow
  • Forearm
  • Knee
  • Wrist

Though it can be difficult to tell if a child has a fracture, you should get them assessed if they won’t put any weight on the affected limb or won’t use it for their daily activities. Fortunately, most fractures are easily treated. If you believe your child has a fracture, you should visit an emergency room, urgent care or when available, a clinic dedicated to sports injuries.

Common sports injuries among teens

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.

"The first thing to do when an injury occurs is to remove the athlete from playing to allow someone to look at the injury," says Dr. Smurawa. "In a minor acute injury, that pain will subside within a few minutes. However, serious injuries will have longer-lasting, more severe pain."

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 treatment approach. Apply RICE and make an appointment with a physician or visit a sports injury clinic to help correctly 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.

High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries each year. Learn more about sports injuries from an expert at Children's Health.

Learn more

The only pediatric institute of its kind in the region, the Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine provides convenient access to a full continuum of orthopedic and sports medicine care. Learn more about our orthopaedic services.

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