Exercise and fitness

Jan Vickery, Lead Physiotherapist at AXA Health

Is it a sprain or a strain? 5 common sport injuries and how to treat them

Exercise and Fitness

10 May 2021

From sprained ankles to painful knees – regular exercise is usually brilliant for your health, but it’s important not to overdo it.

Most minor injuries can be avoided if you:

  • Warm up properly
  • Avoid training too hard
  • Maintain good fitness, building it up sensibly
  • Use a good technique
  • Use the proper equipment and shoes, where relevant.

Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable: jumping and landing awkwardly, colliding with other players, twisting or straining are all risks you run when getting active.

Here, Jan Vickery, our Lead Physiologist at AXA Health describes the most common sports injuries and how to treat them.

Common sports injuries and their symptoms

There are many different types of sports injuries – the following are some of the most common.

1. Ligament sprains

These happen when ligaments – the bands of tissue that connect bones, often over joints – are stretched. They mainly affect your knees and ankles, although thumbs and wrists can also suffer, especially if you take a tumble.

Common symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • Difficulty with weight bearing or using the joint normally
  • Bruising (bruises can take a while to show and can sometimes be away from the affected area as blood moves).

2. Torn ligaments

This is when a ligament is completely ruptured. Symptoms of a torn ligament include:

  • Sudden onset of pain and swelling, usually after landing poorly after jumping, stopping suddenly or a sudden change in direction
  • Being unable to bear weight
  • Instability in the relevant joint
  • Being unable to move the joint.

3. Muscle strains

These result from stretching or tearing muscles. They are common in sports that involve jumping and turning at speed. Symptoms include:

  • Pain – whether using your limb or not
  • Swelling/bruising
  • Muscle spasms
  • Weakness in the affected muscle.

4. Tennis elbow

This results from strain or overuse of the tissue joining the forearm muscles to the elbow. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain on the outside of the upper elbow, often on lifting, bending, gripping, and twisting your arm.

We have more information about tennis elbow here.

5. Tendonitis

This occurs when any tendon in your body becomes swollen and inflamed. It more commonly affects the knees, shoulders, fingers, thighs, elbows or wrists. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain
  • Stiffness, especially in the morning
  • Swelling or a lump on the area affected
  • Restriction in the full range of movement or weakness.

How do you know if your sports injury is serious?

If you experience immediate swelling, you are unable to bear weight through the affected area or use it normally, you need to consider going to your local A&E department. You can also go to a minor injuries unit or your doctor if the pain is particularly bad or if the injured limb looks abnormal, loses feeling, changes colour or goes cold.

These symptoms may be the signs of a significant ligament injury or a fracture. X-rays, scans or other investigations may be necessary to ensure the correct diagnosis and treatment.

“Not all sports injuries start with sudden pain though,” explains Jan. “Some injuries can result from overuse. They may start with a minor pain that then becomes progressively worse over a period of time, sometimes stopping you from continuing with your sport. If this is happening and your pain is not starting to improve it may be worthwhile getting help from a physiotherapist or seeing your doctor."

Treating a sports injury – the secret is PRICE

You can treat most minor sports injuries yourself using the PRICE – Pain relief, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – method.

“First of all, rest the affected limb and apply ice to the painful area as soon as possible to halt the acute inflammatory response,” advises Jan. You can apply an ice pack to the affected area for up to 10 minutes every few hours. Ensure the ice pack (or bag of frozen peas) is wrapped in a towel and does not contact your skin directly as this could result in an ice burn.

“Put on a light compression bandage or support and elevate the painful area, if you can, to reduce swelling.”

If the pain or swelling doesn’t become obvious until the day after exercise, you can still follow PRICE – it’s not too late.

“After the first 48 hours of being injured, it's important to try to move the damaged joint or muscle gently, not only to prevent progressive stiffness and pain, but also to encourage the healing process,” says Jan.

“It may take a week or longer for all the swelling and pain to subside, at which time you can start to increase the amount of activity, but be careful to build up slowly.”

You can also use painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help you manage the pain if you need to and it is safe for you to take these. Stronger prescription painkillers are available if you are in more discomfort.

Most people are back up to full speed after a few weeks, but it really depends on the type of injury and the severity.

Tips to speed your recovery from sports injuries

You can help your body recover from minor sprains and strains by:

Using ice and heat: As outlined above, using ice in the first 48 hours is helpful. It’s important to avoid heat in the first 48 hours after your injury as it can cause more swelling. But after this time, heat may speed up healing by encouraging blood flow to the injured area.

Slings and splints: Supporting/immobilising/protecting the injured part of the body with a sling or splint can reduce pain to begin with, but if you find that you need this for more than a week or so then you should seek advice. Sometimes immobilising an injury for too long can make the problem worse so don’t go down this route unless it really helps and then not for too long. A continued need to immobilise a joint may be indicative of a problem that warrants further investigation.

Painkillers: Paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen) can reduce pain and may help you to become active sooner. Only take this if it is safe for you to do so, however.

Swimming: Gentle pool exercises or swimming are good ways to keep fit without putting too much strain on your muscles and joints while you're recovering. Take a look at our article to find out more about the many benefits of swimming.

Avoid overdoing it: Physiotherapists recommend resting the injured part of the body for 72 hours to promote healing. Once the damaged area starts to feel better, don't be tempted to put too much pressure or force onto the damaged joint too soon.

Test your strength: Even when you feel the injury has settled, test out the affected area carefully on your own before you start back in competitive situations.

Exercise other muscle groups: Prevent recurrence of the injury by strengthening the surrounding muscles. Pilates exercises, which are designed to build strength and flexibility, are an excellent way to do this and are strongly recommended in injury rehabilitation.

Additional support

If you’re an AXA Health member you can get specialist support for any problem affecting the muscles, bones or joints, without the need for a GP referral, through our Working Body service. They’ll arrange for you to talk to a physiotherapist who can assess your symptoms, talk to you about what they could mean, and help you plan what to do next. 

Check your cover online or speak to your claims team for details on how to access this service. The claims team can be contacted on 0800 454 080; their opening times are 8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-5pm on Saturdays.

Further information

You may find the following articles helpful:

Top 10 exercises for a healthy back | AXA Health

Swollen ankles causes and treatment | AXA Health

Alternative ways to take the pain away | AXA Health

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