Health A to Z
The benefits of sports and exercise far outweigh the risks, but occasionally injuries do happen.
This page covers:
Sports injuries can be caused by:
Almost any part of the body can be injured, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). The ankles and knees are particularly prone to injury.
Read about typical sports injuries.
If you've injured yourself, you may have immediate pain, tenderness, swelling, bruising, and restricted movement or stiffness in the affected area. Sometimes, these symptoms may only be noticeable several hours after exercising or playing sports.
Stop exercising if you feel pain, regardless of whether your injury happened suddenly or you’ve had the pain for a while. Continuing to exercise while injured may cause further damage and slow your recovery.
If you have a minor injury, you don't usually need to see a doctor and can look after yourself at home (see below). However, you may want to visit your GP or local NHS walk-in centre for advice or if your symptoms don't get better over time. Find your nearest walk-in centre.
If you have a severe injury, such as a broken bone, dislocation or severe head injury, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible.
You can usually treat common minor injuries yourself by:
If your symptoms are severe or don't improve within a few days or weeks, your GP may be able to refer you for specialist treatment and support, such as physiotherapy.
Serious injuries will occasionally require a procedure or operation to align misplaced bones, fix broken bones, or repair torn ligaments.
Depending on the type of injury, it can take a few weeks or months to make a full recovery. While recovering, it's important not to do too much too soon – aim to increase your level of activity gradually over time.
Read more about treating sports injuries.
You can reduce your risk of getting injured by:
When starting a new sport or activity, get advice and training from a qualified fitness trainer or sports coach.
Sport injuries can affect almost any part of the body, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).
Sprains and strains are the most common type of sports injury. The difference between a strain and a sprain is that a:
Symptoms of a sprain or strain can include pain, swelling, bruising and tenderness around a joint or in a muscle. You may also find it difficult to move the affected body part.
Find out how to treat the following sports injuries:
Read treating sports injuries for more general information.
Back pain is often felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back, but it can be felt anywhere from the neck and shoulders down to the buttocks and legs.
Repetitive activity or a heavy impact while playing sport can injure bones, causing:
A broken bone may cause swelling, significant bruising and tenderness around the injured area, and bleeding if the bone has broken the skin (an open fracture). It's unlikely you'll be able to use the affected limb.
The pain associated with a broken bone can be severe and make you feel faint, dizzy and sick.
If any part of your body looks deformed, including your fingers, you may have broken a bone. You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.
Find out how how to tell if you've broken a bone.
Hamstring injuries are tears to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thighs. They're a common injury in athletes and recreational exercisers.
Sudden lunging, running or jumping can cause the hamstring tendons or muscles to tear, which can be felt or heard as a pop and will be immediately painful. The muscle will spasm (seize up) and feel tight and tender. In some cases, there may also be swelling and bruising.
Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 and ask for an ambulance if you develop any symptoms of a severe head injury, such as:
Read more about the signs of a severe head injury.
Heel pain can occur when the thick band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot becomes inflamed. It's a common running injury.
It can cause a sharp and often severe pain when you place weight on your heel. In most cases, only one heel is affected, although some people have pain in both heels.
Heel pain and stiffness can also sometimes be caused by damage or tightness of the Achilles tendon, which runs up the back of the heel. This can occur gradually over a long period of time, or the tendon can suddenly rupture or tear.
If you experience sudden and severe pain in the back of your heel, which may be accompanied by a "popping" or "snapping" sound, you may have torn your Achilles tendon and should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately.
Swollen joints can be caused by conditions that affect the joints or structures around joints, such as bursa and tendons. Bursa are small fluid-filled sacs underneath the skin, found over the joints and between tendons and bones.
Examples of these types of conditions include:
Tennis elbow is inflammation of the muscles and tendons around the elbow joint. It affects the outside of the elbow and is usually caused by repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm. Golfer’s elbow is similar, but the inflammation occurs on the inside of the elbow.
Sudden knee pain is common in contact sports, particularly those that involve twisting. It's usually caused by a sprain, strain or tendonitis.
Other knee injuries include:
The ACL is one of four knee ligaments. It can tear if you stop or change direction suddenly, or if you land awkwardly from a jump. If you tear your ACL, you may hear a pop or crack at the time of the injury.
Other symptoms of a torn ACL include:
Read more about ACL injuries.
Shoulder pain is common in sports that involve bowling or throwing, such as cricket or baseball. Tendons around the shoulder (the rotor cuff) can become inflamed (tendonitis) or torn, causing pain.
A dislocated shoulder may be caused by a heavy fall or sudden impact. The upper arm painfully "pops" out of the shoulder joint and you won't be able to move your arm.
Go to your nearest A&E department if you think you've dislocated your shoulder. Supporting your arm with a sling while you make your way there may help reduce the pain.
Rubbing or chafing of skin can be caused by poorly fitting shoes or clothes. Make sure your sports gear is appropriate for your activity to help prevent chafing.
Get medical advice as soon as possible if you have a severe skin injury, such as a deep cut that won't stop bleeding. You may need treatment to stop the bleeding and stitches to close the wound.
Treatment for a sports injury will depend on factors such as how severe the injury is and the part of your body affected.
The links below provide information and advice about treatments for specific injuries:
Some general treatments that may be helpful for your injury are described below.
Minor injuries, such as mild sprains and strains, can often be initially treated at home using PRICE therapy for two or three days.
PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can be used to help ease the pain.
Aspirin shouldn't be given to children under 16 years old.
Immobilisation can sometimes help prevent further damage by reducing movement. It can also reduce pain, muscle swelling and muscle spasm.
For example, slings, splints and casts may be used to immobilise injured arms, shoulders, wrists and legs while you heal.
If you have a sprain, prolonged immobilisation isn't usually necessary, and you should try gently moving the affected joint as soon as you're able to do so without experiencing significant pain.
Some people recovering from a long-term injury may benefit from physiotherapy.
It's a specialist treatment where techniques such as massage, manipulation and exercises are used to improve range of motion, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and return the normal function of the injured area.
A physiotherapist can also develop an exercise programme to help strengthen the affected body part and reduce the risk of the injury recurring.
A corticosteroid injection may be recommended if you have severe or persistent inflammation.
It can help relieve pain caused by your injury, although for some people the pain relief is minimal or only lasts for a short period of time.
If necessary, a corticosteroid injection can be repeated, but you'll usually only be able to have two or three injections a year.
Side effects can include thinning of the skin, loss of fat, and infection. The doctor treating you will be able to explain the possible side effects in more detail.
Most sports injuries don't require surgery, but very severe injuries such as badly broken bones may require corrective treatment. This may include a manipulation or surgery to fix the bones with wires, plates, screws or rods.
In some cases, it may be possible to realign displaced bones without needing an operation.
Certain other injuries may also occasionally require surgery. For example, an operation may be needed to repair a torn knee ligament.
Read more about knee ligament surgery.
Depending on the type of injury you have, it can take a few weeks to a few months or more to make a full recovery.
You shouldn't return to your previous level of activity until you've fully recovered, but you should aim to gently start moving the injured body part as soon as possible.
Gentle exercises should help to improve the area’s range of movement. As movement becomes easier and the pain decreases, stretching and strengthening exercises can be introduced.
Make sure you don't try to do too much too quickly because this can delay recovery. Start by doing frequent repetitions of a few simple exercises before gradually increasing the amount you do.
In some cases, the help of a professional, such as a physiotherapist or sports injury specialist, may be beneficial. They can design a suitable recovery programme and advise you about the exercises you should do and the number of repetitions.