Examples of sports injuries 

Many sports injuries result in pain, swelling and restricted movement or stiffness in the affected area.

Sprains and strains are the most common type of sports injury. A sprain happens when one or more of the ligaments is stretched, twisted or torn. A muscle strain ('pulling a muscle') happens when muscle tissues or fibres are stretched or torn.

Most sprains and strains usually heal with rest and don’t require specialist treatment, although physiotherapy may speed up your recovery. Completely torn ligaments or muscle may need to be surgically repaired.

Other sports injuries include:

These are described in more detail below.

Back pain

Most sports carry a risk of causing back pain. Properly warming up before exercise can reduce this risk.

Back pain can be felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back, but it can also be felt in the neck, shoulders, buttocks or lower limbs.

Bone injuries

Repetitive activity or a heavy impact while playing sport can injure the bone, causing:

  • stress fractures – a tiny crack that develops in a bone as a result of repeated stresses (for example, overuse during high-impact activities like distance running). Resting the affected body part will heal most stress fractures
  • shin splints (painful shins) – caused by inflammation in the tissues surrounding the shin bone (tibia). This is common in any sport that involves running and is treated with rest, ice, elevation and appropriate strength and flexibility exercises
  • a broken ankle
  • a broken arm or wrist
  • a broken leg
  • a broken toe
  • a broken finger

A broken bone may cause swelling or tenderness around the injured area, and bleeding if the bone has broken the skin (open fracture). It's unlikely you will be able to use the affected limb.

The pain associated with a broken bone can also be severe and make you feel faint, dizzy and sick. Treatment will depend on which bone is broken and the type of fracture.

Read about how to tell if you have broken a bone.

Hamstring injury

Hamstring injuries are tears to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thighs. They are common among athletes.

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 severe cases, there will also be swelling and bruising.

Hamstring injuries usually heal on their own if you rest until it feels better. This may take days, weeks or months depending on the severity of the tear. Speak to a sports physiotherapist if you're unsure.

Head injuries 

minor head injury, such as a bump or bruise, is common and doesn’t need treatment. If you have any concerns, see your GP or local walk-in centre.

You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department if any symptoms of a severe head injury develop, such as:

  • unconsciousness, either very briefly or for a longer period of time
  • difficulty staying awake or still being sleepy several hours after the injury
  • a seizure or fit, when your body suddenly moves uncontrollably
  • difficulty speaking, such as slurred speech
  • vision problems or double vision
  • difficulty understanding what people say
  • vomiting

If you think someone has a severe head injury, immediately take them to the accident and emergency (A&E) department of your nearest hospital, or call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Heel pain

Heel pain (plantar fasciitis) can happen when the thick band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot becomes damaged. It's common in runners and joggers.

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 it is thought that up to a third of people have pain in both heels.

Inflamed joints

Joint inflammation can be caused by conditions that affect the joints and tendons, such as:

  • bursitis – inflammation of a bursa, which is a small fluid-filled sac underneath the skin, usually found over the joints and between tendons and bones
  • tendonitis – inflammation of a tendon around the shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger, thigh, knee or back of the heel (Achilles tendonitis)

Tennis elbow is a type of tendonitis that affects the outside of the elbow, caused by repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm. Golfer’s elbow is similar but the swelling occurs on the inside of the elbow.

Knee pain

Sudden knee pain is common in contact sports, especially those that involve twisting. If the cartilage or ligaments are damaged, this can cause knee swelling.

Other knee conditions include:

  • Runner’s knee – caused by overuse of the knee. Symptoms include soreness and discomfort beneath or to one side of your kneecap. It can also cause a grating sensation in your knee.
  • Cartilage damage – in severe cases, a piece of cartilage can break off and become loose, affecting the movement of your joint. This can cause a feeling of the joint locking or catching. Sometimes, the joint may also give way. Keyhole surgery may be necessary for investigation and treatment.
  • A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – see below.

Knee ligament damage

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four ligaments in your knee. It can tear if you suddenly stop or change direction, or if you land badly from a jump. If you tear your ACL, you may hear a pop or crack at the time of your injury.

An ACL tear is a fairly common sports injury and around 20% of all sports-related knee injuries involve the ACL. The symptoms of a torn ACL include:

  • severe pain in your knee
  • instability in your knee, which means you cannot put much weight on it
  • swelling in your knee
  • not having the full range of movement in your knee and, in particular, not being able to straighten your leg

Depending on the severity of your ACL tear, you may need to have reconstructive surgery to repair it.

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is common in sports that include repetitive movement such as overarm bowling or throwing. 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 a sudden impact. The upper arm painfully 'pops' out of the shoulder joint and you will not be able to move the arm.

If you have a dislocated shoulder, you should go to the accident and emergency (A&E) department of your nearest hospital. It may help to support the arm with a sling. In hospital, the shoulder will be put back into the joint with the help of strong painkillers or sedation.

Page last reviewed: 02/04/2013

Next review due: 02/04/2015