• Clinical science

Sports injuries


Sports injuries are usually the result of a sudden increased load on the joints, ligaments, and/or muscles. Acute joint and ligament injuries typically result from non-physiological movements in the joints. (e.g., twisting the ankle → supination injury). Treatment of acute sport injuries usually follows the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, elevation). Definitive therapy depends on the extent of the injury (e.g., the presence or absence of fractures) and ranges from immobilization of the affected region (e.g., casts, braces, supportive wraps) to surgical repair.


List of topics covered in this card:

Sport injuries covered in other cards:

Injuries to the bones, tendons, and ligaments

Quadriceps tendon rupture

Patellar tendon rupture

  • Etiology
    • Trauma to the infrapatellar region (common)
    • Rarely as a result of contraction of the quadriceps muscle with the foot planted (e.g., due to a fall)
    • Chronic tendon degeneration
  • Clinical features:
  • Diagnostics
    • X-ray; (AP, lateral, axial): a high-riding patella; calcification seen in chronic causes
    • Ultrasound: hypoechogenic section seen across the tendon (suggests an acute tear)
    • MRI: used if other techniques are inconclusive; shows disrupted tendon fibers with adjacent hemorrhage or edema
  • Treatment
    • Partial tears: immobilization
    • Complete tears: surgical end-to-end suturing of the patellar tendon

Patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner's knee) [1]

  • Epidemiology
    • One of the most common causes of anterior knee pain
    • Common in young athletes
    • >
  • Etiology
  • Clinical features
    • Retropatellar or peripatellar pain that worsens with activity or after periods of prolonged sitting
    • Crepitus when knee is flexed
  • Diagnostics
    • Clinical diagnosis
    • X-ray in case of findings that suggest an alternative diagnosis to exclude other pathologies: e.g., osteoarthritis, patellar fracture, or osteochondritis
  • Treatment

The patellar grind test is not particularly helpful in diagnosing patellofemoral pain syndrome and may cause the patient unnecessary pain.

Injuries to ankle ligaments

Grade Characteristics
I No macroscopic tears
II Partial tear
III Complete tear
  • Clinical features
    • Soft tissue swelling, limited range of movement at the ankle joint, hematoma
    • Tenderness over the sprained ligament
    • Joint laxity and a prominent talus (when compared with the normal ankle)
  • Diagnostics
  • Treatment
    • Conservative therapy
      • Initially: RICE protocol
      • Later
        • In cases of severe pain and/or instability → Grade II may require a cast boot and Grade III may require a short leg cast for a few days.
        • In cases of fractures → short leg cast
    • Surgical treatment
  • Differential diagnosis: ankle fracture
  • Prognosis
    • Most ankle sprains heal well.
    • Recurrent ankle sprains may lead to ankle instability, which may require surgical reconstruction of the ankle ligaments.
    • The recurrence of an ankle sprain can be prevented by proprioceptive training.

The most common cause of an ankle sprain is a supination injury!


Muscle injuries

Delayed onset muscle soreness

  • Definition: painful feeling of tension in the muscles 1–2 days after increased physical activity
  • Etiology: climbing uphill; eccentric strength training; sports that involve jumping, acceleration, deceleration, and sudden changes in direction
  • Pathophysiology
    • Microtears close to the Z-line of the sarcomere → stimulation of muscle hypertrophy
    • If the load or the level of physical activity is too high → inflammatory reaction near the Z-line → greater muscle repair and less muscle hypertrophy and pain due to muscle edema
    • Based on current knowledge, the build-up of lactate does not play a role in muscle soreness.
  • Clinical features
    • Pain on moving and/or stretching the affected muscles, muscle tenderness; peaks after 1–3 days
    • Muscle stiffness
  • Diagnostics: clinical diagnosis
  • Treatment:
    • Avoid rest!
    • Cycling, jogging at low intensity
    • Warmth (e.g., applied heat)
    • Careful passive stretching
  • Prognosis: Spontaneous healing usually occurs within a few days.

Muscle strain

  • Definition: excessive stretching of a muscle, which can lead to a tear
  • Etiology
    • Longitudinal stretching of the muscle to a point beyond the elastic limit during active contraction
    • The musculotendinous junction is the most common site of injury.
  • Classification
Grade Characteristics
I < 5% of muscle fibers are damaged
II Numerous muscle fibres are torn, incomplete rupture
III Complete tear of muscle or tendon
  • Clinical features
    • Acute-onset pain, which is present at rest and exacerbated by movement
    • Swelling of the muscle
    • Tenderness to palpation
    • Visible hematoma
    • Loss of function in the affected muscle for grades II and III
    • Palpable dent in the muscle for grade III injury
  • Diagnostics
    • X-ray: to rule out fracture or dislocation
    • MRI: to determine if a full rupture is present
  • Treatment
  • Prognosis: Grade I strains may recover spontaneously within a couple of weeks; high grade strains may take months.


Acute management of sports injuries

  • RICE protocol: "RICE" = Rest → Ice → Compression → Elevation
    • Rest: All athletic activity should be discontinued; continued physical exertion can worsen the injury or delay healing.
    • Ice
      • Cool the affected area for 20–30 min, followed by a break, and resume after a couple of hours.
      • Ice should not be directly applied to the skin! → risk of frostbite!
    • Compression
      • The affected limb/joint should rest in a position that minimizes pain.
      • Elastic bandage (wrapped in a caudal to cranial direction)
      • A change in the character of pain (throbbing pain) may imply that the bandage is too tight → remove the bandage and reapply after 5–10 min
      • Taping (tape bandages) should not be used during the first 12–24 hours.
    • Elevation: The extremities should be raised above the level of the heart.
  • Additional measures
    • Alcohol should not be consumed for at least 24 hours after injury.
    • Saunas and warm baths increase circulation in the injured region and should not be used during the initial period after injury.