Treatment for a sports injury will depend on how severe the injury is and the part of your body affected.
If your injury does not require medical treatment – for example, a mild sprain or strain – you can treat it at home using PRICE therapy.
PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation.
Protection – protect the affected area from further injury – for example, by using a support.
Rest – avoid exercise and reduce your daily physical activity. Using crutches or a walking stick may help if you cannot put weight on your ankle or knee.
Ice – apply an ice pack to the affected area for 10–30 minutes. A bag of frozen peas, or similar, will work well. Wrap the ice pack in a towel to avoid it directly touching your skin and causing ice burn.
Compression – use elastic compression bandages to limit swelling.
Elevation – keep the injured leg, knee, arm, elbow or wrist raised above the level of the heart. This may also help to reduce swelling.
After 48 hours of PRICE therapy, stop compression and try moving the injured area. If, after this time, your symptoms are worse, speak to your GP.
PRICE therapy can be useful for any sports injury, but some injuries may require additional treatment.
Painkillers, such as paracetamol can be used to help ease the pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help ease the pain caused by sprains and fractures and help reduce any swelling.
Aspirin should not be given to children under 16 years of age.
Immobilisation helps prevent further damage by reducing movement. It also reduces pain, muscle swelling and muscle spasm.
A sling can be used to immobilise an arm or shoulder until medical advice is given. A splint or cast made of plastic or fibreglass may be used to protect injured bones and soft tissue.
After a knee injury or knee surgery, a leg immobiliser made from foam rubber, may be used to keep the knee in a fixed position and prevent it from bending.
If you have severe or persistent inflammation, a corticosteroid injection may be recommended. The steroid cortisone is injected through a fine needle into the affected area. It is usually combined with an anaesthetic so it is not painful.
Corticosteroid injections can usually be given once every three to six months. More frequent injections are not usually recommended because they can damage tissue.
People who have a corticosteroid injection find that their pain improves significantly or disappears completely over the next few weeks to months. However, for some, the pain relief is minimal or only lasts for a short period. A few people will see no improvement, or symptoms may get worse.
There is a small risk of infection and other side effects after a corticosteroid injection. You may feel discomfort at the site of the injection for up to 48 hours.
Physiotherapy involves using massage, manipulation and special exercises to improve the range of motion and return the normal function of injured area.
For example, someone recovering from a long-term injury may benefit from a programme of walking and swimming to help strengthen the muscles in the affected body part.
Some sports therapists and coaches believe that massage may speed up the recovery process. Supporters of massage argue that it helps to:
encourage the flow of blood into the affected body part and the nutrients in blood can help repair any damaged tissue
increase flexibility in the affected body part
Massage is not recommended if you have a serious soft-tissue injury, such as a torn ligament, as it could make the injury worse.
Despite being a very popular treatment, there is little hard evidence that massage aids recovery. However, it can reduce stress levels and make you feel more relaxed, which may be important benefits themselves.
Heat treatment and ultrasound therapy
Some sport therapists argue that using heat therapy (heat pads or lamps) and ultrasound therapy (high-energy sound waves) may work in a similar way to massage by stimulating blood flow to the affected body part. However, as with massage, the evidence for both these treatments is not conclusive.
Ultrasound seems to speed up the healing process of fractured bones. However, there is little evidence that it speeds up the healing process in other types of sports injury.
Heat treatment seems to help relieve pain, but again, there is little evidence that it can speed up the healing process.
Most sports injuries do not require surgery but very severe injuries, such as badly broken bones, may require corrective surgery. In some cases it may be possible to use a non-surgical technique, known as closed reduction, to realign broken bones.
During surgery for a broken bone it may be necessary to fix the bones with wires, plates, screws or rods, known as open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF).
A torn knee ligament can also require reconstructive surgery.
Rehabilitation is an important part of treating sports injuries. A rehabilitation programme aims to return the injured body part to normal function by gradually introducing it to movement and exercise.
With most sports injuries, after the initial recovery, it helps to move the injured part as soon as possible to help speed up the healing process. Gentle exercises should help improve the area’s range of motion. As movement becomes easier and the pain decreases, stretching and strengthening exercises can be introduced.
During the rehabilitation process, you should not attempt to do too much too quickly. Start by doing frequent repetitions of a few simple exercises before gradually increasing the amount that you do. Avoid painful activities and do not return to your sport until you have no pain, and full strength and flexibility have returned to the injured area.
A healthcare professional, such as a physiotherapist or sports injury specialist, can help you design a suitable rehabilitation programme and advise you about which exercises you should do and the number of repetitions.