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How to Identify 10 Common Sports Injuries

Know the difference between when you can walk it off and when you’re at risk of doing real damage.

Meniscus Tear

The most common surgery in orthopedics is on the c-shaped shock absorbing cartilage on either side of the knee—known as your meniscus, explains Charleston-based orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist David Geier, M.D. While older adults can hurt the cartilage with wear-and-tear, in people under 40, a tear is typically due to a specific event like twisting your knee or bending too deep.

“This is a very specific tenderness along either the inside or outside of the knee toward the back, along the joint line,” says Geier. Usually people suffering a meniscus tear can point to exactly where it hurts, rather than pain throughout the whole knee, he adds.

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Ankle Sprain

One of the most common acute injuries in rec league sports, ankle sprains occur in basketball, football, soccer, or any sport that involves running-and-cutting, Geier says.

“Look for swelling and bruising at the ankle that goes down into the foot and difficulty putting weight on it,” he says. If you rolled your ankle but the pain is higher up in the leg and you have tenderness in between your shin bones, it may be a high ankle sprain, adds Karen Sutton, M.D., associate professor of sports medicine at Yale University and Head Team Physician for the US Women’s National Lacrosse Team. If the pain is on the bone instead of the ligament, or if you can’t put any weight on it, you might be looking at a fracture or broken ankle.

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ACL Tear

Your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of two crossing ligaments in the middle of the knee, helping stabilize it. “ACL tears commonly happen with cutting, pivoting, and jumping and people usually feel or hear a pop at the time of injury,” explains Moira McCarthy, M.D., sports medicine surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

“Within an hour of hearing or feeling a pop, your knee will seriously swell—like a basketball-size bump,” Geier says. You may also be resistant to putting weight on the leg or unable to fully straighten the knee, McCarthy adds. 

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MCL Tear

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) runs along the inside of the knee, and people typically tear it from changing directions—like cutting and pivoting, or skiing—or from colliding with another player in a game, like a football or missed soccer tackle, says Geier. MCL injuries can also occur alongside an ACL injury, so you might not realize you damaged the ligament right away, McCarthy adds.

You may have some pain in the knee when walking and see some swelling—although not as much as with an ACL rupture—but the defining symptom is pain localized to the inside of the knee, Sutton offers.

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Runner’s Knee

“Despite the name, you can actually get runner’s knee from any repetitive activity over time, like jumping, basketball, even too much time on the stairmaster,” Geier says. But it is very common in runners—especially if you aren’t stretching or strength training properly, McCarthy adds.

The pain is often in the front of the knee, surrounding the kneecap or throbbing right underneath it—and the symptoms are as simple as that, Geier says. Typically the pain is worse when you’re going up or down a hill or stairs, but if you let it develop for long enough, the pain can be bothersome with even normal activities like walking, he adds.

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IT Band Syndrome

This one is almost exclusive to those who pound the pavement. “Iliotibial Band Syndrome is seen frequently in runners who are increasing their mileage or training for a long distance race,” Sutton explains. 

Walking will be fine, but on training runs, you’ll start to feel a sharp pain on the outside of the knee, particularly when going downhill or down stairs, she explains. And the pain will probably be exclusive to running—you likely won’t feel any discomfort when cross- or strength training. If you’ve had the irritation for a while, you may even feel a popping sensation over and over as the IT band snaps back and forth over the bony process on the side of your knee, Geier adds.

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Pulled Hamstring

This is an acute injury that happens in a split second when someone has to suddenly sprint and exert a quick burst of speed, Sutton explains. 

If you’re running all out and suddenly feel a severe cramping in the middle of the back of the thigh, you’ve probably pulled a hammy. “You’ll have difficulty bending your knee fully, each step will be painful, and, for severe injuries, your muscle will be bruised a day or two later,” she adds. If you feel pain and tenderness higher up toward your pelvis or butt, let your doc know—these kinds of hamstring pulls can take longer to heal and even, in rare cases, can be a sign that the muscle has detached from the bone which would require surgery to fix, Geier says.

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Plantar Fasciitis

This extremely common foot pain occurs when your calf and achilles tendons are super tight, leading to degeneration of the plantar fascia tendon which holds up the arch of your foot, Geier explains.

You’ll feel a pain in the heel and sole of your foot, particularly with the first few steps in the morning, easing up the more you walk on it, Geier explains. It’s important to get it checked by a doc, though, as the symptoms could also be a sign of a stress fracture, Sutton adds. (An M.D. can tell the difference in your walk.)

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Tennis Elbow

This is a very common elbow complaint from everyone, not just tennis players, says McCarthy. “Tennis elbow happens from repetitive actions of the arm, including tennis, but more commonly using a screwdriver or tools, brushing your teeth, turning a doorknob, and many other manual job-related activities,” she explains. It stems from inflammation and partial tearing of the tendon on the outside of the elbow. 

While you’ll feel pain in your elbow with every swing of the racket, it’ll also hurt to do everyday things like carrying boxes, shaking peoples’ hands, and opening doors or jars, Sutton explains. The pain will be centralized to the outside of the elbow.

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Stress Fractures

“When you train in something that involves a repetitive motion for a long period of time—like running—sometimes your muscles are unable to absorb the added shock and the pressure creates small cracks in your bones,” Geier explains. Over time, these cracks become bigger and bigger, causing more and more damage and pain.

Stress fractures can occur in any bone, but when it comes to sports, the damage is typically in your lower body. Look out for nagging pain along various bones, typically in the foot, around the ankle, or around the knee, he says. What differentiates stress fractures from other injuries is that these gets worse over time. “Runners will go out and feel a dull soreness after 20 or 30 minutes. When they stop, it goes away. But as they keep pushing through it over time, the pain will start coming in 10 minutes into the run, then 5, and it takes longer and longer to go away,” he explains. Eventually you’ll start feeling that same pain with just daily activities like walking. If you train through, it can cause a permanent fracture that will be difficult to heal, but most of the time the pain becomes so debilitating that people have to stop training and (hopefully) get it checked out.

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