We've all heard the call to arms: Americans are getting plumper, driving up healthcare woes and expenses. We are all soldiers in the 21st century Battle of the Bulge, and one of our most formidable weapons is exercise. Statistics show that many of us are indeed burning serious calories, but our athletic pursuits are having the unintended consequence of creating rising numbers of sports injuries.
More than 10 million sports injuries, running the gamut from nagging aches and pains to concussions, are treated each year in the United States. They are an equal opportunity occurrence, affecting novice exercisers as well as veteran gym rats, and not discriminatory regarding age or sex.
Kids, who are taking up competitive sports at seemingly ever-earlier ages, are frequently visiting doctors because of sports-related sprains, strains and the occasional concussion. Physicians commonly see cases of "Little Leaguer's elbow" in prepubescent pitchers, and shin splints, knee and shoulder problems among high schoolers.
Sports-related emergency room injury rates among baby boomers increased by 33 percent during the 1990s, amounting to more than one million sports injuries in 1998, mostly from bicycling, basketball, baseball and running, according to a U.S.
Consumer Product Safety Commission report. Seniors are also feeling the pain, incurring more sports injuries as they continue to stay active into the years beyond age 55. And women of all ages, as they embrace sports once dominated by men, are spending more time with ice packs as they try to undo the damage wrought by athletic endeavors.
Is there anything more frustrating than becoming injured while exercising? Possibly. But hearing your knee pop or feeling your back twinge while playing tennis or taking an aerobics class just doesn't seem fair. Unfortunately, if you are active, it's pretty much inevitable that you will suffer some type of sports injury sooner or later, says David Kehas, M.D., an Elliot Hospital family medicine physician.
Sports injuries can be brought on by many causes, but a handful of factors commonly play a role.
Most sports injuries are due to overuse. Repeatedly performing the same activity or motion stresses the same body parts again and again, and chances are, eventually something will give - especially if you are using improper form - and an injury will result. Even low-impact exercise like golf can create "golfer's elbow."
Age also can play a part. Your chances of developing an ache or pain from an activity increase as you age, says Mark Reeder, M.D., family practice physician and sports medicine specialist at Exeter Hospital. Muscles and tendons lose their elasticity over time, so that, in your twenties, an awkward landing during a basketball game might not pose a problem, but in your 40s, the same landing might leave you with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Experts also point to inconsistent workouts as a potential injury red flag. Many people find it difficult to exercise on a steady, regular basis, and instead exercise sporadically or become weekend warriors, saving the bulk of their physical activity for the weekend. Some outdoor exercisers, such as runners and bikers, slack off during rough New Hampshire winters. It is not a good idea to take the winter off, and then in the spring, jump right back into whatever you were doing before the first snow flew, Kehas says. Although your psyche might be able to handle the sudden transition, the rest of you might not follow suit.
If you do get injured, consider the commonly prescribed RICE method for injury treatment. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. It helps reduce swelling and gives an injury time to heal. Do not attempt to "work through" pain. If something starts to hurt, stop the exercise. If an injury persists or worsens and doesn't heal with regular, conservative means of heat or ice, and ibuprofen, it's probably time to see your doctor, says Kehas.
An ounce of prevention
The good news is, there are many steps you can take to help decrease your chances of injury. Here are some of the basics:
Maintain a consistent activity level
Try to get at least some moderate physical activity daily, and resist the urge to plunge into an activity quickly. Rather than changing your activity dramatically, ease into an exercise program. "The body is very dynamic and it can respond well to new stressors," Reeder says. "In fact, it likes having new stressors put on it, but if you give it a chance to adjust, it'll do much better."
Many experts recommend that exercisers follow a 10 percent rule, which means you should increase your activity level by no more than 10 percent per week. So, if you biked 3 miles this week, next week you can increase your distance to 3.3 miles, and the following week go for about 3.6 miles. The same rule applies to any exercise, including strength training. Slowly increase your workout time and intensity.
Allow ample recovery time
Give yourself time to recover from an activity by resting or cross-training so that you avoid training the same muscles on consecutive days. If you run on Monday, go for a swim on Tuesday.
Work your core
Core strengthening is all the rage at health clubs these days, and for good reason. Stronger muscles around your midsection mean better support for everything you do. "I recommend core strengthening," Reeder says. "Say, for example, you move suddenly and twist your knee. If the rest of your body is better supported by core muscles, maybe there will be a little less stress on that knee" when you suddenly change position.
Warm up and stretch
Although research data does not conclusively support the efficacy of stretching, most sports experts do recommend it. Rather than abruptly jumping into intense physical activity, warm up and loosen cold muscles first. Especially after the activity, deeply stretch to counteract the ligament and tendon elasticity loss brought on by age.
Don't skimp on equipment
Buy the proper safety and performance equipment for the job. If you are a runner demanding many miles of your body, for instance, help yourself out by investing in the right kind of sneakers for your feet and running style.
Don't give up
Lest you think that the risk of injury is a convenient excuse to hang up your swim fins or cycling shoes and relax on the couch, keep in mind that many of the sports injuries Reeder sees mimic the types of sprains and strains that can result from sports, but are actually due to the patient's daily activities, such as sanding and priming a deck over a long weekend. In other words, it doesn't matter if you have athletic aspirations or not. Properly done, consistent exercise will help keep you shipshape for life, as well as for sports. NH
This article appears in the October 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine