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Warning Signs and Symptoms of Serious Sports Injuries

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Serious Sports Injuries


Updated May 20, 2014

young woman checking her elbow for an injury
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Most sports injuries that need attention have some common warning signs and symptoms. Acute sports injuries are often obvious, and occur in a dramatic fashion, but other injuries can creep up slowly and get progressively worse. These often turn into nagging chronic aches and pains. If you pay attention to the warnings signs and symptoms of both types of injuries, you can often heal quicker and avoid serious damage or a long-term problem.

For detailed information on specific sports injuries, check out the sports injury by body part reference page.

Don't Ignore These Sports Injury Warning Signs

  • Joint Pain
    Joint pain, particularly in the joints of the knee, ankle, elbow and wrist, should never be ignored. Because these joints are not covered by muscle, pain here is rarely of muscular origin. Joint pain that lasts more than 48 hours requires a physician's diagnosis.

  • Tenderness at a Specific Point
    If you can elicit pain at a specific point in a bone, muscle or joint, by pressing your finger into it, you may have a significant injury. If the same spot on the other side of the body does not produce the same pain, you should probably see a physician.

  • Swelling
    Nearly all sports injuries cause swelling. Swelling is usually quite obvious and can be seen, but occasionally you may just feel as though something is swollen even though it look normal. Swelling usual goes hand-in-hand with pain, redness and heat. Swelling within a joint often causes pain, stiffness, and may produce a clicking sound as the tendons snap over one another after having been pushed into a new position from the swelling.

  • Reduced Range of Motion
    If swelling isn't obvious, you can usually find it by checking for a reduced range of motion in a joint. If there is significant swelling within a joint, you will lose range of motion -- the limb will only go so far in each direction. Again, compare one side of the body with the other to identify major differences; if there are any, you likely have an injury that needs attention.

  • Comparative Weakness
    Comparing one side to the other for weakness is often hard to do, but can be helpful when assessing an injury. One way to tell is to lift the same weight with the right and left side and look at the result. Or try to place body weight on one leg and then the other. A difference in your ability to support your weight is another tip-off to an injury that requires attention.

  • Numbness and Tingling
    Never ignore numbness or tingling. Such sensations are often related to nerve compression, and these warning signs may indicate serious injury that should always be seen by a physician.

How To Treat Sports Injuries

If you recognize any of the above warning signs the goal is to prevent further damage. The best way to do this is to stop all activity and begin treatment immediately. Don't let the problem get any worse and don't let the swelling continue. Look for an obvious cause of the injury such as poorly fitting equipment or a missed step while sprinting. If you can locate the source of the injury, you can begin to remedy the situation.

The first treatment indicated for any acute injury is reducing any swelling by using the R.I.C.E. treatment method. (Rest, ice, compression and elevation). Swelling causes pain and loss of motion, which in turn will limit use of the muscles. If you don't use the muscles, they will weaken, and shorten and resist repair.

Do not apply heat to an acute injury. Heat will increase circulation and increase swelling. (see: Should I Heat or Ice My Injury?)

Immediate Injury Treatment Step-by-Step

  1. Stop the activity immediately.
  2. Wrap the injured part in a compression bandage.
  3. Apply ice to the injured part (use a bag of crushed ice or a bag of frozen vegetables) for no more than 15 minutes at a time.
  4. Let the area warm completely before applying ice again, in order to prevent frostbite.
  5. Elevate the injured part to reduce swelling.
  6. Get to a physician for a proper diagnosis of any serious injury.

More Tips for Treating Sports Injuries


Anybody's Sports Medicine Book, James Garrick, M.D. and Peter Radetsky, Ph.D.

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