Whether playing softball, shooting hoops after work or going for a morning jog, the threat of injury is real for even nonprofessional athletes. As summer heats up, New Orleanians may be more at risk for sprained muscles or broken bones if they're tempted to kick up the routine a notch to stay in shape.
Athletes should approach their workout routines with care, since injury prevention is key to staying healthy, according to Emily McElrath, an athletic trainer who has a doctorate in physical therapy. McElrath, who works at the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine, says even amateur athletes must cross-train to keep the body's most important muscles strong.
That includes stretching and strengthening large muscle groups found in the middle of the body, including the abdominals and back.
"Across the board with patients, whether they're here for back, knee or shoulder injuries, prevention is key, so we want to strengthen the muscles closest to the core," McElrath says. "Runners, for example, typically have weak hips and core muscles, so we want to stabilize the pelvis to prevent injuries to other joints, like knees and ankles. It would be the same with baseball players, but with them we're looking at stabilizers of the shoulder blades."
Dr. Christine Keating, who works in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Ochsner Baptist Back and Spine Center, agrees. She adds that it's also important to have a plan when beginning a new workout routine — even if it's as simple as jogging just a few miles in the morning or evening.
With running, for example, Keating says patients should start slowly, by jogging and walking before gradually increasing to long distances. They should always remember to cross-train and stretch.
"If you're trying to add cardio exercise, remember you need to work on strength training and stretch after exercising," Keating says. "Try to mix it up a little, and that way you'll also keep yourself interested."
Some trainers and physical therapists, like Melanie Weller, will do full-body exams and tailor routines for athletes of all ages in the hopes of preventing injury. Weller, a board-certified orthopedic specialist who owns the company Age Spans, says she gives people "tune-ups" to decrease risk of injury.
Since the biggest predictor of an injury is a prior injury, Weller agrees that prevention is tantamount.
"I try to stop the madness," Weller says, adding that she tailors each program to the person's sport, gender, age, strength and flexibility.
Sports injuries do happen though, whether they're from accidents, inadequate training or improper use of protective devices. According to Dr. Misty Suri, an orthopedic surgeon at Ochsner Health Center, the most common types of sports injuries are sprains, strains, fractures and dislocations.
All trainers and physical therapists interviewed recommended rest, ice and anti-inflammatories for minor injuries. However, depending on the severity, some injuries take more intense treatment and a longer time to heal, McElrath says.
She adds that some sports cause more recurring injuries than others. Medical professionals have shared some of the most frequent injuries by sport, and how to prevent and treat them.
Football is the No. 1 cause of injury among patients who go to the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine, McElrath says. Even flag football can be the cause of several recurring injuries — some of which require surgery.
Many football players suffer from knee pain. Sometimes the pain can indicate anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, commonly known as ACL tears, McElrath says, adding that a tear in the knee is serious.
"If they plan to continue playing, then surgery is typically the end result," she says.
However, she says the good news is that surgeons are now looking at a "new wave" of the rehabilitation process — one that preps the patient before surgery. Called "prehab," the patient waits until the swelling goes down from the injury, and then goes in to surgery.
"People have higher success rates that way," McElrath says.
People who play soccer and basketball are also at risk for ACL tears, she says.
Because it's a high-impact, repetitive sport, running can cause a number of injuries, according to Keating. In fact, she says the majority of her patients come in with Achilles tendinitis — an ailment that can be caused from overuse and from wearing improper running shoes.
"I see people wearing minimalist shoes when really you want to be in a full shoe," Keating says, adding that the purpose of the soft shoes is to encourage runners to land more on the front of their feet than on their heels. But that doesn't always work.
"Each brand has their own minimalist shoe — they're trendy," she says. "But people do tend to land on their heels, causing tendinitis in the Achilles and even knee pain."
Other causes of Achilles tendinitis include not stretching the calf or having weak quadriceps muscles. Strong leg and stomach muscles are essential to preventing injury, McElrath says.
"A lot of runners do not believe in doing anything besides running so they get repetitive use injuries or strain injuries," McElrath says.
Tendinitis and strains are often treated with ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, she says.
Baseball players, especially young ones, can suffer from an injury called "sick scapula," McElrath says. Essentially, the phrase means that the shoulder blade and the humerus bone should move together in a certain rhythm, but if the muscles surrounding the shoulder blade are not strong, it leads to poor biomechanics during throwing and batting.
The improper throwing, in turn, can cause a breakdown of the shoulder joint and the elbow joint, she says.
"We see that with younger kids because they're playing year-round baseball," McElrath says. "Like running, it causes repetitive stress injuries."
McElrath highly encourages a scapular stabilization program — or strengthening of those essential muscles surrounding the shoulder blade — for kids in year-round baseball as a way to prevent injury.
Tennis players are at risk of developing shoulder pain — an ailment commonly seen with swimmers, too, Keating says.
Overuse can lead to tendinitis and irritation of the rotator cuff, both of which can be prevented by strengthening the muscles of the upper back and working on posture and form, she says.
The latter is especially true when trying a new swing.
"You need to be gradual about making changes," Keating says. "It's not healthy to do one move over and over again. You need to take that into consideration."
Although it may seem like a gentle practice, yoga can be as harmful as a high-impact sport if not done properly, Keating says.
She's seen people come in with back problems because they weren't strong enough to handle the poses.
"Stretching is great, but you need to strengthen as well," Keating says. "The main thing is that it's all about balance."