Unfortunately, injuries are a common occurrence in athletic activities. The good news is that they do not necessarily have to mean the end of your season, especially if the injury is identified early and addressed with the proper care immediately.
Rehabilitation of an injury is the most effective methods of reducing an athlete's time on the sideline. An athlete's return to play can be quickened by days - or even weeks - simply by dedication and compliance to a structured rehabilitation program.
Stages of Rehabilitation
The length of time needed to rehabilitate an injury depends on how severe the injury is – a mild sprain or strain may only take a week while a complete ligament tear(s) can take months to fully recover. Compliance in rehabilitation is a huge factor. If you do not attend all of the prescribed treatment sessions or do not complete the homework you are given, you can greatly increase the amount of time it takes to return to your sport. Other factors that can influence recovery time include pain tolerance, amount of swelling, and how in shape you were prior to your injury. In any event, the stages involved in rehabilitating an injury remain the same. The goals for each stage are as follows:
- Phase 1 - Control Pain and Swelling
- Phase 2 - Improve Range of Motion and/or Flexibility
- Phase 3 - Improve Strength & Begin Proprioception/Balance Training
- Phase 4 - Proprioception/Balance Training & Sport-Specific Training
- Phase 5 - Gradual Return to Full Activity
Phase 1 of the rehabilitative process focuses on controlling pain and swelling (if present). The general rule in this phase is Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation (RICE). Other modalities, such as electrical stimulation or ultrasound, may also be used by licensed medical professionals (such as athletic trainers or physical therapists) to assist with this process. If necessary, physicians may choose to prescribe medication.
Phase 2 concentrates on increasing range of motion of a joint or flexibility of a muscle. Athletes are given specific stretching exercises to do on their own or may be manually stretched out by an athletic trainer or physical therapist. In this phase, stretches should ideally be held up to 30 seconds.
The goal of the 3rd phase of rehabilitation is to increase strength. Isometrics (pushing against an immovable object) may be used first, followed by the use of elastic bands of varying resistances, free weights, cuff weights, or weight equipment.
Phase 4 focuses on proprioception/balance and sport-specific training. Proprioception is defined as the body's ability to know its position in space at all times without looking. Simply put, it is balance. When an athlete injures herself, she damages her ability to balance. Improving one’s proprioception is a great way to help prevent an injury from reoccurring.
This leads to Phase 5 of the rehabilitation process which gradually returns the athlete to full activity. Sport-specific training implements exercise, skills, or drills that athletes perform during games or practices. At this point, the athletic trainer or physical therapist carefully progresses the injured athlete from basic exercises to those requiring higher skill level as they heal and have the muscle control to tolerate them without risking further injury.
Even once you are back in the game, it is important to continue your rehabilitation to help prevent another injury. While an injury may be painful, it will pass, especially if treatment is started early and followed intently. Just like practice.
Consult your primary care physician for more serious injuries that do not respond to basic first aid. As an added resource, the staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine is available to diagnose and treat sports-related injuries in youth, adolescent, and collegiate athletes. Services are available in multiple locations throughout central Ohio. To make an appointment, call (614) 355-6000 or request an appointment online.