How to Help Student Athletes Avoid Injuries with Sports Physical Therapy

young woman running, young man holding hockey stick and young woman holding tennis racquet

As we transition into the last weeks of summer, many young athletes, who enjoyed a relaxing summer are now facing grueling practices in the heat, hoping their aching muscles will quickly regain the strength needed to meet the demands of competition and expectation of their coaches. Unfortunately, this sudden increase in exercise intensity can produce high levels of strain on the bones, tendons, and muscles, contributing to injuries and inflammation that can plague athletes for weeks or even months. Learn how sports physical therapy can help your young athlete.

Ten tips to reduce pain and injuries with return to sports activities  

Start sports training early

One cause of injury or nagging problems is lack of conditioning in the off season. Busy summer schedules and lack of motivation can put the squeeze on pre-season training. Building strength, power and flexibility with regular exercise makes the muscles, tendons and bones physically stronger to withstand the strain of regular practices and competition of the regular season. Increasing endurance can lessen the fatigue and which contributes to injuries.

Make sure you address all areas of fitness needed for your sport when designing your training program. Using weights, resistance bands, body weight exercise or speed training can all be effective ways of increasing strength.

Have your physical therapist instruct you how to properly perform exercises that will be helpful for your sport. Zach Vandenberg, Doctor of Physical Therapy explains that “Regular stretching is important to maintain proper flexibility and fundamental movements, decreasing tightness that can contribute to injuries.Don’t forget to add in exercise to improve balance, control, and proper position of the body to reduce risk of injury to your sports physical therapy program.

Warm up for games and practice

Getting your body ready to play by gradually and safely increasing the amount and force of movement while activating muscles is essential for reducing injuries. Some athletes warm up adequately for a game but don’t give enough attention to warm up before practice, increasing potential for injury. While it feels like warmups just make the body feel looser it is important to understand that the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord and nerves that control movement also get warmed up allowing greater coordination and control.

Try an active warm up that includes running, jumping, arm and leg swinging and other large body motions such as squatting to loosen up. In sports where a lot of flexibility is needed, some prolonged stretching may be needed but make sure there is adequate time for muscles to recover from stretching before competition.

Beat the heat

Many athletes practice outdoors during hot, humid weather increasing risk for heat stress or heat related injury. Staying hydrated is essential under those conditions. Drink water regularly, before, during and after practices. During extended practices in the heat, replacing electrolytes with low sugar or unsweetened sports drinks can be helpful. Getting out of the sun and using cool towels on the neck or head can also reduce excessive heat. Watch for signs of heat stress or dehydration including camps, fatigue and nausea and seek treatment if more serious signs of heat related illness such as vomiting confusion or fainting occur.

Consider cross training

As the sports season continues the body may begin to experience fatigue or wear and tear in some ways while fitness in other areas may be lacking. Try some exercises that are different than your usual practice or fitness program. Add in some cardio or light strengthening with some new exercise. Go for a bike ride, go for a swim, or try yoga. Mix it up and make it fun.

Eat to win

Proper nutrition is essential for athletes who have high physical demands. Lack of adequate calories, protein, carbohydrates and fats can cause athletes to feel fatigued, run down, and slow down healing and recovery.  Excessive “junk food” can be a substitute for healthy food in our diet, adding empty calories causing weight gain and increased inflammation.

10 tips for student athletes

Get to the core of the problem

At times injuries occur because one area of the body is weak or tight. This is especially true in the “core”. Weakness in the muscles of the hips and trunk can increase the force required to hit and throw with the arm leading to shoulder and elbow problems. Tightness or weakness in the hips can lead to pain in the back and knees. Maintaining good flexibility and strength in the hips, mid and upper back can improve performance with running, kicking, jumping and throwing.  Consider having your physical therapist design a sports physical therapy program that addresses some your “core” issues.

Assure Rest Recovery and Sleep

Few things contribute to injury and overuse like inadequate recovery. Some young athletes and kids play a game and return to practice or the next game before their body has fully recovered leading to inflammation or injury. Many student athletes stay up late to finish homework, connect with friends or catch up their latest video series or favorite game causing long term loss of sleep affecting their concentration, memory, increasing risk of illness and decreasing time for healing in the body. An NCAA study showed that one-third of student-athletes get fewer than seven hours of sleep per night, with greater values among women. Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is essential for good athletic and school performance.

Know your weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses, and this is especially true of our bodies. Some athletes are tight while others are unusually flexible, one may have great strength but poor control or endurance. “Young athletes who have grown rapidly often have areas of weakness or tightness,” explained Stephanie Korb, Doctor of Physical Therapy. “Knowing where young athletes are weak and addressing those issues can decrease sports injuries and help them recover faster.”

Fix problems early

Athletes want playing time, no one likes to be on the sideline with an injury. Some will continue playing despite having a nagging pain or minor injury which can lead to more problems down the road. Often, they rely on anti-inflammatory medications to get by so they can play in the next game. Addressing problems early with sports physical therapy, decreases the underlying causes of pain and inflammation and things that can lead to tendinitis, sprains, strains, or other injuries.

Connect with your physical therapist

Not only can sports physical therapists diagnose overuse problems or sports injuries, but they are also movement experts that can identify underlying strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance issues that may contribute to future injuries. Physical therapists can treat pain and injuries with hands on treatment, exercises and natural, drug free pain relief using dry needling helping to restore normal movement and sports performance. They don’t stop at reducing the pain but focus on getting teen athletes recover from injuries, playing with greater reserve in strength, control and awareness of movement that will help prevent injuries in the future.

Do you have questions regarding a sport related injury? Learn more about our sports physical therapy services or give us a call we would be glad to help.