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Sprain Drain 

How athletes can avoid injuries and stay in the game

click to enlarge To help prevent injury, Diversify your workout routine, stretch, and know your body's limits.
  • To help prevent injury, Diversify your workout routine, stretch, and know your body's limits.

Dr. Jacob McKenzie, a physical therapist at the Movement Science Center in Metairie (111 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie, Suite 470, 834-9259), has noticed an increasing awareness in the National Football League (NFL) about just how hard contact sports like football can be on the body. The NFL recognized certain precautionary measures can help reduce the risk of serious damage.

  "First the players' helmets were redesigned to provide better protection from impact," he says. "Then, rules started being enforced concerning how exactly they can hit each other during the game."

  But sports injury doesn't just occur on the multimillion dollar, televised level. Painful damage can befall even the most casual exerciser or weekend competitor. In fact, Dr. Michael O'Brien of the Tulane Institute of Sports Medicine (6823 St. Charles Ave., 864-1476; www.tulaneorthopaedics.com) says the most common types of sports-related ailments he witnesses are sprains and strains, which occur across all types of athletes, regardless of age, activity or experience level. The difference between the two injuries, he says, is the location of the damage: A strain occurs when a tendon or a muscle is overstretched or torn, while a sprain occurs when the ligament surrounding a joint is injured.

  "Most people can tell when they've hurt themselves," O'Brien says. "They sense right away that something is off." Warning signs include swelling, bruising (caused by the internal bleeding of the torn muscle) and inability to use the extremity or area normally without pain.

  Another common ailment McKenzie often notices is painful inflammation caused by overuse of the certain muscle areas. Patients who have played the same sport for years — say, tennis — are often surprised when they suddenly experience discomfort in their shoulders during a serve. "After a while, your body just gets to a certain point where it's irritated," McKenzie says. "Most people think physical therapy is for one specific injury that has been sustained during a single event, but a lot of the problems we see come from years of overuse." Fortunately in these instances, he notes, rest, rehabilitation and slight modification of the activity in question are usually enough to prevent any further damage.

  The most important thing to do with a recent injury, says Dr. Pamela Petrocy of East Jefferson General Hospital's Rehabilitation Center (4200 Houma Blvd., Metairie, 456-5119; www.ejgh.org), is to rest it immediately, as continuing with the activity can turn a minor injury into a serious problem requiring surgery. Apply ice consistently over the first 48 hours, wrap it with a compression bandage and elevate the wounded part to keep swelling down. If it doesn't resolve completely within two weeks, see a doctor.

  "When we first see a patient with what we assume is a minor injury, we start with an X-ray and an anti-inflammatory (medication), to see what the problem is and to help reduce swelling," Petrocy says. "Most of the time, it's something that can be resolved by taking some time off. We often give patients exercises that they can do at home to help re-strengthen the muscle."

  Injuries that require surgical attention, like a torn ACL or rotator cup, are more painful, expensive to treat, and have a slower recovery rate. All three doctors agree adequate preparedness is the best way to avoid getting seriously hurt. Fortunately there are a number of preemptive measures an athlete can take to ensure his or her body is ready for activity. Stretching, before and afterwards, is paramount. If your health is poor, consult a physician before engaging in any exercise routine. Above all, know your limits.

  "One of the most important things to remember when performing all kinds of physical activities is that you need to ease into them," O'Brien says. "When you're starting, go for shorter durations that are less intense. Don't go out the first day and run six miles." He also recommends working whenever possible with licensed trainers, since their background makes them more educated about their clients' physical limits.

  McKenzie agrees that designing your workout to fit your body's needs is a good way to avoid damage. "You need to ensure that you're exercising all of your muscles and joints, not just the ones you can see — although those are usually the ones people pay most attention to," he says.

  Focusing equally on the less visible parts of your physique helps increase your stability, which in turn prevents you from going off-kilter and straining a muscle in the heat of the game. For those who engage in contact or year-round sports (like many high school students), McKenzie stresses the importance of cross-training: switching up gym routines to develop the specific muscle strengths that may not necessarily be used in your sport of choice. For example, instead of training in the off-season by only focusing on his throwing power, a quarterback might switch from resistance training, like weight-lifting, to more balance-focused exercise, like yoga. This way, athletes maintain their fitness level, but avoid overusing or stressing the muscles they use while playing the game.

  Even non-contact athletes should diversify to their workout routine to prevent injuries caused by overuse. Runners face especially great risks of damage to their knees and hips because of the strong impact of the ground against their feet. "I've seen people who are only 40 years old with their knees in terrible shape, because they've been running for so long," McKenzie says. He recommends staggering treadmill time with workouts on elliptical machines, stair climbers and exercise bikes, as these machines work all the leg muscles without causing stress to the bones.

  There are even options for those who are particularly fragile or who want to avoid the risk of injury. Swimming and water exercises help decrease the amount of stress from impact and provide universal resistance for optimal muscle development. For older athletes who are reluctant to relinquish the thrill of competition, McKenzie recommends biking. "It strengthens your legs and improves your cardiovascular endurance while still limiting the amount of stress on your hips and knees," he says.

  Of course, as Petrocy notes, engaging in any strenuous physical activity requires a certain degree of "accepting the risk." Still, preparedness, self-awareness, and slight modifications of your routine can go miles toward ensuring your body will keep up with your personal fitness goals.

For more information on what to do when injured, visit www.moveforwardpt.com.

SIDEBAR

Proper footwear is instrumental in preventing injury to athletes — particularly for runners. Jessica Demello of Varsity Sports (2021 Claiborne St., Mandeville, 985-624-8200; 3450 Magazine St., 899-4144; www.varsityrunning.com) shares her tips for finding the right shoe.

1. Have a gait analysis to determine what type of foot you have and what type of shoe you'll need.

2. Whether you are a distance runner, jogger or walker, a shoe built to withstand intense training is imperative. "A running shoe tends to be lighter weight, more breathable, and provide more cushion and shock absorption," Demello says.

3. Regularly replace your running shoes. If you run often and prefer a lighter shoe, Demello says, you will likely have to replace your shoes more frequently. The average runner logging 15 to 20 miles per week should get new shoes about every six months.

4. To extend the life of the shoes, rotate between two pairs.

5. Try several different pairs before making a decision: "Brand and style come down to personal preference. Go with something properly fit," she says.

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