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6 Must-Read Tips to Lower Risk for Common Football Injuries

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By: Dr. Timothy Petsche

Football is one of the most popular team sports in the United States today, particularly among young athletes. Every year more than a million and a half students actively participate in the game, making football the established leader in high school and college athletics. Of course, football also leads the way when it comes to sports related injuries, with injury rates that are nearly double those associated with other sports such as basketball and baseball. According to the National Safety Council  roughly 400,000 players are treated each year for football related injuries, with nearly half of those requiring surgery or emergency room treatment. Fortunately, the majority of football related injuries can be avoided, or at the very least minimized, when student athletes give as much attention to prevention as they do to training and game-day performance. Help prevent common football injuries for you or your athlete by learning the most common injuries, and what can be done to avoid them.

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Common Football Related Injuries

Injuries sustained during a football game, or even during practice and training, are largely due to the combination of high speeds and full body contact. Like it or not, football can be a rough sport and even with helmets, pads, and braces traumatic injuries can and will occur. The dynamic movements made by players in the heat of the game often lead to damage to the player’s muscles, ligaments or bones. While overuse injuries are not uncommon, traumatic injuries still dominate the game.

Some of the most common injuries sustained by football players at every level of the game include:

  • Dislocations and ACJ Tears in the Shoulder – When a player tackles an opponent, their full weight is thrown behind the movement. The point of contact is typically the tackling player’s shoulder. The propulsive force behind the tackle can often result in a torn ligament within the tackler’s acromioclavicular joint (ACJ). Left untreated, an ACJ injury can lead to a weakening of the ligaments in the joint. A dislocation of the shoulder occurs when the ball joint at the top of the arm separates from the socket of the shoulder. In most cases a dislocated shoulder will damage the cartilage (labrum) and ligaments of the ball and socket joint. In severe cases a dislocated shoulder can cause damage to the surrounding nerves and tissue.
  • ACL Tear in the Knee – The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is one of the four ligaments that make up the knee joint. When undue stress is placed upon the knee, it can result in a tear in the ACL. This is one of the more common injuries sustained by football players, and in most cases the patient will have to undergo full ACL reconstruction followed by extensive rehab.
  • Meniscus Tear in the Knee – A meniscus tear is a common injury among athletes, particularly those that participate in football or basketball. The meniscus is a rubbery C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions the knee, keeping it steady and distributing the player’s weight across the joint. A torn meniscus can interfere with the proper functioning of the knee, and in many cases the patient will need to undergo a full meniscus repair.
  • Sprains – Sprains to the knee and ankle are common injuries for football players at every level of the game. A sprain occurs when the ligaments in the affected joint are overstretched or otherwise damaged. In many cases the player’s attending physician may recommend an ankle or knee brace combined with rest and physical therapy. Occasionally ankle or knee arthroscopy will be necessary to determine the level of damage to the ligaments and joints and to devise a suitable treatment for the patient.
  • Heat Injuries – Over heating typically occurs during daytime warm weather two-a-day practices in August, or during day games. Dehydration is a common problem faced by football players at every level of the game. The intense physical activity associated with training and game-play typically results in excessive sweating that can quickly deplete the body of salt and water.
  • Back Injuries – Rigorous game play can often lead to back injuries, ranging from pulled muscles and pinched nerves to herniated discs and stress fractures. Though less common in younger athletes, a herniated disc can cause pain and weakness in the arms and legs and may require surgery to repair the damage.

6 Tips to Prevent Common Football Injuries

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While it is impossible to prevent every football injury, there are steps that players can take to minimize their risk of sustaining one or more of the most common injuries that plague devotees of the game. The following tips are common sense measures that every young athlete, parent, and coach should keep uppermost in their minds during football season.

  • Pre-Season Physical – All players should undergo a pre-season physical to determine their readiness to play. A full physical examination prior to the start of season gives the player’s primary physician the opportunity to uncover any underlying conditions that may limit participation or suggest a higher risk factor for certain injuries.
  • Warm Up and Stretch – All players should take the time to warm up before training and game-play. This is a particularly important step in the prevention of muscle and joint injuries. Cold muscles are much more prone to injury, and regular warm ups can go a long way towards preventing many common football injuries. Recent studies have shown that a dynamic warm up prevents sports injuries, but stretching does not seem to prevent sports injury.
  • Cool Down and Stretch – Stretching at the end of practice, and following a game, helps to reduce soreness and keeps the muscles long and flexible. A cool down routine following play helps lessen muscle soreness.
  • Hydration –Dehydration can impact a player’s health and performance. Players should always make it a point to remain hydrated throughout the day before training and game play, drinking water as needed. It is also important to avoid sugary and highly caffeinated drinks.
  • Nutrition -Players need to eat during the day before games. Many players feel too nervous to eat before games. During the game they sweat and loose too much of their bodies salt. This can cause muscle cramps due to a lack of salt in their body. This can be severe if players don’t eat anything salty all day, but continue to drink water. Avoid this by eating a normal diet and drinking water only when you are thirsty.
  • Rest and Rehab – One of the most important things that every athlete requires is rest. Prior to training or a big game, players should make a point of getting the proper amount of sleep the night before. Post-injury rest is even more important, and while it is tempting to want to get right back in the game injured players must take time out for rest and rehabilitation. Returning to the game too soon, and even returning to practice ahead of schedule, can lead to further injuries.

Off Season Fitness and Prevention

It has become relatively common for student athletes to play sports year round without a regular seasonal break. While the natural desire to keep active is to be encouraged, playing and training year round for any sport can be dangerous and can lead to a shortened athletic career. The constant stresses and strains placed upon the player’s body, without a seasonal break for rest and rehabilitation, can lead to a higher risk for both overuse and traumatic injuries. Football players at every age should take advantage of the off-season to let their bodies heal and regenerate. During the off-season players should maintain a balanced fitness program, concentrating on aerobic exercise and strength training. As football season approaches, players can increase their exercise routines to ensure that they are in peak physical condition by the start of the season.

Football will always be a rough and tumble game, and there is no way to entirely prevent all of the injuries so commonly associated with the sport. Help prevent common football injuries by taking the safegaurds that have been proven to help athletes of all ages lower their risk. As long as young athletes take to the field with rigorous determination, some of them will end up temporarily sidelined by a game related injury. But many football related injuries, and their ultimate severity, can be greatly reduced when players take the necessary preventative measures to protect their bodies and their athletic careers.

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