The weather is heating up, and so is the amount of time we spend outdoors enjoying activities like biking, walking and running, or participating in team sports like basketball, baseball and soccer. That is, until a painful injury forces us from the outfield onto the bench.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports as many as 2 million people are treated for sports injuries in emergency departments across the country each year ­­– with most of these injuries happening to otherwise healthy individuals. Bicycling, basketball and baseball/softball account for the highest number of emergency department treatments for injury. If you get hurt, Novant Health is open for walk-in orthopedic care. See link at bottom.

But don’t hang up your bike helmet and sneakers for fear of getting hurt this summer. Dr. Benjamin Browning, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine and arthroscopic shoulder and knee surgery at Novant Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Brunswick County, said there are a few practical steps you can take to help prevent injury when you’re participating in outdoor sports and activities, as well as things you can do to aid your recovery in the case that you do suffer a strain.

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Check with your primary care doctor

If you became a bit of a couch potato over the winter, or if you’re just starting a rigorous activity for the first time, it’s important to tell your primary care doctor before you begin. This helps to ensure that you are in good overall health for that particular activity. Browning emphasized that this is especially important if you have a history of any medical conditions or are currently taking a medication.

If you have a prior history of joint pain or old sports injuries, your primary care doctor may refer you to a sports medicine specialist or a physical therapist to help with activity-specific exercises and strength training.

Condition and rest appropriately

Benjamin Browning wears a white physician's jacket and smiles at the camera.
Dr. Benjamin Browning

Strength training is important to build endurance for a sport. So are rest days in between. Browning encourages starting before the season to condition your muscles for high-impact activity.

“The best way to prevent injury when playing sports is to really work on your strength, flexibility, endurance and conditioning prior to engaging in the activity,” Browning said. “If you don't do the work ahead of time, there’s a higher probability that you're going to injure yourself.”

Warm up and cool down … for longer than you think

Part of conditioning appropriately is including both a warmup and cooldown before and after each workout … and most people aren’t doing these things at all, or for nearly long enough.

“Ideally, around 10 to 20 minutes of both warming up and cooling down may help decrease your risk of injury,” Browning said.

The American Heart Association explains that warming up is important because it ensures your muscles are well supplied with oxygen and also raises your muscles’ temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. For a sport-specific warmup, The International Sports Sciences Association recommends considering the movements you’ll be doing in your sport, then doing them at lowered intensity for 10 minutes. For example, before a tennis match, do arm swings to warm up the shoulders and side lunges to mimic the way you’ll be jumping around for the ball. Before a soccer game, include warmups that help protect the ankle joints, like ankle rotations, to reduce the chance of sprains.

Cooling down is just as important because it helps to gradually decrease the body’s heart rate after a period of intense activity, and also helps to prevent the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, which can cause stiffness and soreness. A great cool-down routine is 10 to 20 minutes of dynamic stretching, which is gently moving through a stretch rather than holding it in a static position.

Don’t play through an injury

If you injure yourself during an activity, it’s important to stop and rest, lest you worsen your condition.

“If you're trying to play through sharp, severe pain, you can certainly take a mild injury and make it significantly worse if you do that,” Browning said.

Following a minor injury like a muscle strain, or if you realize you pushed it a bit too far and experience soreness, use the RICE method to treat it:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

“If you have a mild injury that occurs while exercising, you can certainly ice it up in those first 24 to 72 hours after the injury,” Browning said. Anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen can also be helpful, he said, but check with your primary care physician that these are safe for you and don’t interact with any medications you are taking.

If ice and rest lead to short-term improvements, you’ll be back in the game soon. But if you experience sudden, severe pain during an activity, or can’t bear weight on an extremity, this warrants a visit to the doctor.

“If you can't walk off the field, you should really be seen by a doctor before trying to get back to playing,” Browning said.

Broken bones, twisted ankles and sprained wrists can’t wait. Our expert orthopedic and sports medicine care teams offer same-day appointments and walk-in care.

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