Sports injuries: why do they occur and what are the most common ones?
Published: 5 September, 2023 | 6'
With the help of Doctor Yaiza Acosta, specialist in physical and sports medicine, and María Mercedes Sánchez, responsible for the Scientific Information area of MARNYS, we are going to understand what sports injuries are and which are the most common ones.
What is a sports injury?
A sports injury can be simply defined as the result of applying force to a part of the body that exceeds its resistance capacity, affecting the functioning of the structure, and that occurs as a result of sports, physical activity or exercise.
Why do we get injured?
As explained by Doctor Acosta: “injuries occur due to an interaction of different events and risk factors“. Thus, the factors involved can be intrinsic (dependent on the athlete) or extrinsic (associated with the environment).
- Age: as age increases, the risk of sports injuries increases due to a lower physical condition or bone conditions, such as osteoporosis.
- Growth: during this stage, cartilages are more susceptible to repetitive pressure, which can lead to muscular imbalances and injuries.
- Gender: some injuries are more frequent in men, while others are more common in women.
- Body composition: the weight that joints must bear, bone mineral density, lean tissue mass, etc. can influence the risk of injuries.
- Nutritional factors: inadequate levels of minerals such as calcium or magnesium, or vitamins such as vitamin D, can be factors associated with injuries.
- Previous injuries: they can cause joint instability or, if there has been inadequate rehabilitation, predispose to new injuries.
- Physical conditioning: how strength is used, muscular power, oxygen consumption, and joint range of motion will determine the risk of injuries.
- Sport technique: an inadequate execution of sports technique can lead to acute or overuse injuries.
- Mental state: it is now recognized that the psychological state of the athlete is essential in avoiding sports injuries.
- Others: hormonal factors, toxic substances, metabolic diseases, medications, and anatomical conditions.
- Training regimen: there are injuries that occur due to lack of warm-up, too rapid progression in training and/or insufficient rest.
- Sports equipment: it should be adapted to the specificities of the sport or exercise to be performed. Inappropriate sports equipment can cause injuries.
- Practice or competition field surface: when sports are practiced on irregular, soft, or too hard surfaces, the incidence of sports injuries can increase.
- Human factors: demands from family, teammates, coaches, and self-demand can lead to physical overload and increase the risk of injuries.
What are the most common injuries in sports practitioners?
“Sports injuries are commonly associated with the musculoskeletal system, which includes muscles, bones, joints, and their connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments,” states Acosta.
Data shows that the most common sports injuries affect the lower extremities. As María Mercedes Sánchez states, “between 50% and 86% affect the ankle and knee joints, while injuries in the upper extremities account for only 17%.7“
Regarding the type of injury, overuse injuries are more common in sports without physical contact (running or trail running, athletics, etc.). On the other hand, “in sports with physical contact (football, basketball, etc.), acute injuries are usually more frequent,” adds María Mercedes Sánchez.
Regarding the structural type of injuries, ligament injuries are the most common, with an incidence of 20% to 40%, followed by muscle injuries with an incidence of 20% to 30%. Bone tissue injuries are less frequent, with fractures accounting for 3% to 10% of injuries.7,8
Most common types of sports injuries
According to the affected tissue, the most common injuries among athletes are:
- Sprains: injuries to the ligaments that surround synovial joints in the body (bursitis -shoulder, elbow, and knee-, impingement syndrome -rotator cuff shoulder-, trochanteric bursitis, quadriceps sprain, hamstring sprain, medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament sprains -knee-, meniscus tear, calf sprain, Achilles tendon sprain, etc.).
- Strains: injuries to muscles, tendons, or the junction between these two (tennis/golfer’s elbow, carpal or cubital tunnel syndrome, triceps brachii tendon rupture, back ligament strains, pubic osteitis, iliopsoas tendonitis, adductor tendonitis, patellar tendonitis -jumper’s knee-, posterior tibial tendonitis, peroneal tendonitis, supination, pronation, sesamoiditis -sesamoid bones in the foot tendons-, plantar fasciitis, among others).
- Contusions: occur due to hits on the body surface that compress subcutaneous tissues and the skin (biceps bruising, pelvic hematoma, quadriceps or hamstring muscle contusion near the femur, etc.).
- Fractures: bone cracks or breaks (pitcher’s elbow, clavicle, stress fractures, patellar chondromalacia -runner’s knee-, ankle fractures, among others).
- Dislocations: occur when there is displacement of the adjacent surfaces of the bones that form a joint (wrists, ankles, shoulder, subluxation of the patella, subluxation -dislocation- of the peroneal tendon, etc.).
When is an injury considered severe or acute?
“Within the field of sports medicine, there is some controversy regarding how to exactly define a sports injury and its scope,” explains María Mercedes Sánchez. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, acute injuries are characterized by “sudden onset as a result of a traumatic event.”
In other words, acute injuries occur due to significantly traumatic and sudden events (for example, bone fractures, muscle and tendon strains, among others), manifesting with pain, edema, and loss of functional capacity.
When is an injury considered chronic?
In the case of chronic injuries, they develop progressively.
The American Academy of Family Medicine defines chronic injuries as those that are “characterized by a slow and insidious onset, which involves a gradual increase in structural damage.”
For example, according to Sánchez, these would be “overuse injuries in which the athlete has made repeated and continuous movements, such as running.”
Like acute injuries, chronic injuries also present the same symptoms, causing pain, swelling, and loss of functional capacity. However, if the injured area is not properly managed with medical attention, it can lead to a progressive deterioration of the tissue, especially the muscle-tendon tissue,” adds Dr. Yaiza Acosta.
What type of sports are more prone to injuries?
Overall, according to the Scientific Information Department of MARNYS, “research on the incidence of sports injuries reveals that the frequency of sports practice plays the biggest role.” In other words, “the more hours of sports we practice, the more chances we have of suffering an injury,” she asserts.
It also depends on whether the athlete is simply exercising, training, or competing.
For example, we see that the rates vary between 1.7 and 53 injuries per 1,000 hours of sports practice; between 0.8 and 90.9 per 1,000 hours of training; between 3.1 and 54.8 per 1,000 hours of competition; and from 6.1 to 10.9 per 100 games. These variations are due to the diversity of sports activities, ages, countries, type and level of competition, among others.8
Do men or women get injured more? Is there a difference by gender?
In general, “there are indeed some gender differences in the risk of suffering a sports injury,” says Dr. Acosta. And it is women who are at greater risk of suffering a sports injury7.
And according to age? At what age do we get injured more?
Age also affects the incidence of sports injuries. Data show that “there is a higher incidence of injuries between the second and third decades of life,” reports María Mercedes Sánchez.
How can we prevent sports injuries?
As we have seen previously, there are many factors that influence the likelihood of getting injured, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Therefore, “paying attention to these factors, as well as to nutritional factors, physical conditioning, sports technique, etc. is what can help prevent injuries,” concludes Dr. Yaiza Acosta.
You can learn more in the article on How to prevent injuries in runners.
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- Runner’s World Essential Guides: Injury Prevention & Recovery: What Every Runner Needs to Know About Getting (and Staying) Healthy. Editorial: Rodale Books (September 4, 2012).
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- Walker, B. The Anatomy of Sports Injuries. 2005 by Simeon Niel-Asher. ISBN:978-84-9910-120-0.
Content prepared by the specialists of the Scientific Information Department of MARNYS in collaboration with Dr. Yaiza Acosta. This article is informative and does not replace the consultation of a specialist.