1.JUN.2017 9 MIN READ | 9 MIN READ

While many of us are eager to return to playing sports or our normal activities as soon as possible, it is wise to remember that sports injuries take time to heal.

Whether you’re training to compete in the next tournament or engaging in a sport to stay healthy, here are 5 common sports injuries you might run into and the average time it takes to recover from each one.

Ankle sprain

This is a traumatic injury usually caused by accidents or running on uneven terrain. Sprains often happen when you ‘roll’ your foot, causing the ankle ligaments to stretch beyond its limit and tear.

Ligaments are the strong, stretchy bands that help stabilise your ankle. They hold the bones of your ankle together but allow for some movement. However, if there is too much movement in an abnormal posture, these ligaments can tear and result in a sprain.

Average healing time: Most ankle sprains heal on their own between 6 – 12 weeks.

At the point of injury, apply the RICE method – rest, ice, compression and elevation – to effectively deal with ankle sprains. Surgery to repair torn ligaments is usually only considered where there is a severe ligament tear or if the ankle remains unstable even after rehabilitation. On occasion, an ankle sprain can also lead to simultaneous injuries in the joint like cartilage injury or bone chips, which may also need to be managed surgically.

Hamstring pull

The hamstring can be overstretched by movements such as kicking the leg out sharply or sudden deceleration when running. Hamstring muscles are often ‘pulled’ when an athlete is overusing or overstretching the muscle.

During a hamstring pull, one or more of the hamstring muscles gets overloaded and overstretched. The muscles might even start to tear. You’re likely to pull a hamstring during activities that involve a lot of running and jumping, or suddenly stopping and starting.

Average healing time: Hamstring injuries can take anywhere between 3 – 6 months to heal. On occasion it can even take up to 12 months to heal. The most common reason for such a long recovery period or re-injury is often due to inadequate physiotherapy and stretching, and returning to sports too early.

A big part of recovery has got to do with working on rebuilding muscle to prevent a repeated injury. In severe cases where the muscle is torn, surgery may be required to repair the muscles and reattach them.

Shin splints

The term describes pain felt along the inner edge of your shin bone. The pain concentrates in the lower leg between the knee and ankle. Your doctor may refer to the condition as a medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS). It is a cumulative stress disorder on the bones, muscles, and joints of the lower legs that prevent your body from being able to naturally repair and restore itself.

Shin splints are very common, especially among runners. Runners might get them after ramping their workout intensity or changing the surface they run on. Sometimes, shin splints can be confused with a stress fracture in the bone.

Average healing time: The discomfort will usually resolve in a few days with rest and limited activity. However, this condition can persist if not recognised early and treated.

Identifying the root cause of this injury is important. Is the condition due to over-training, eg. too much running? Is it a problem with the surface on which you do your activity? Perhaps running on a softer surface like a running track may be beneficial. If you are a heel-striker when running and have a flexible flat-foot, an arch support may be required. On occasion, if there is a developing stress fracture, surgery may be required. Rarely, there may also be muscle tears which may require surgery.

ACL tear

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a ligament that links the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone), and is a core stabiliser of the knee. ACL injuries occur most commonly in sports that involve sudden stops, jumping or changes in direction, such as football, tennis and skiing.

A torn ACL usually does not heal without surgery. If you’re a young athlete who wants to get back in the game, you will most likely require surgery to safely return to the sport. On the other hand, the less active, older individual may still be able to return to a normal lifestyle without surgery.

Average healing time: Medical treatment for an ACL injury begins with several weeks of rehabilitation and your rate of recovery will depend on how bad the injury is.

Whether you undergo surgery or not, rehabilitation plays a vital role in stabilising your condition and helping you return to a normal lifestyle. Rehabilitation will focus on reducing pain and swelling, restoring the knee’s full range of motions, and strengthening of muscles especially the hamstrings, quads and glutes.

If you have surgery, rehabilitation will focus on returning motion to the joint and surrounding muscles, followed by a strengthening programme to protect the new ligament. This gradually increases the stress across the ligament. The final phase of is aimed at a functional return tailored for the athlete's sport.

Tennis elbow

Doctors know the condition as lateral epicondylitis. The rest of us call it ‘tennis elbow’. It is a painful condition brought about by the overuse of arm, forearm and hand muscles, usually as a result of repetitive motions of the wrist and arm.

Average healing time: Although the condition often gets better on its own, this injury can take between 3 – 12 months to fully heal. During this time, rest is extremely important in allowing the tendons and muscles heal.  Targeted rehabilitation and stretches are critical for this process.

If your symptoms don’t improve within 12 months of non-operative treatment, you might be a candidate for surgery to remove damaged tissues. The procedure is usually performed through a small incision. Thereafter, physical therapy is crucial in strengthening the muscles and allowing you to recover to pre-injury state.

Remember that any time you step out onto the field of play, there is always a possibility of injury. Repeated wear and tear on your body eventually adds up, leading to excessive stress on the muscles and joints that lead to injury. This makes it extremely useful to learn to distinguish good pain from the bad, which include dull pains and excessive fatigue. Struggling to do a few more reps may seem like a good idea today, but it could compromise your progress in the long run.

Article reviewed by Dr Michael Soon, orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital

Soon Yee Hoong Michael
Orthopaedic Surgeon
Mount Elizabeth Hospital

Dr Michael Soon is an orthopaedic surgeon practising at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.