In our practice at Bluetail Medical Group, we frequently have the privilege of caring for a wide array of athlete types. Their activity of choice may differ, but there are some innate truths to these types of patients. They are often motivated, driven people who enjoy life in the game – not from the sidelines. Another fact about them: from professionals to amateurs to weekend warriors, none are immune to injury. And especially for those who consider sports or fitness an integral part of who they are, being unable to engage in active daily living can leave them reeling with a significantly reduced quality of life than the one the were used to pre-injury.
So it’s with no surprise that one of the most frequently asked questions we hear is: when can I get back to (insert name of sport, activity or fitness regimen here)? Though the answer varies greatly from patient to patient and is dependent upon on the injury sustained, there are some general recovery timeframes for the most common sports injuries that can help active people feel less like the healing process will take for-to-the-ever.
Sprains and Strains
The most common sports-related injury categories are sprains and strains – with ankle sprains, groin pulls and strained hamstrings the most common specific injuries within these categories. Often referred to as “muscle pulls” these types of injury involve suddenly stretching ligaments or tendons beyond their limits. With proper at-home treatment, minor strains and sprains can take a week or so to heal before you’re back in the game. More severe injuries of this nature, however, can take three months or longer in some cases. How do you know which you’ve sustained? Did you ice the injured area, restrict activity on it, applied compression to reduce swelling and elevated it in the acute period immediately after it happened? If the answer is yes and it’s still extremely swollen, you can’t bear weight on it, it feels unstable, or it’s not getting better after a couple of days of at-home treatment, it’s time to see a doctor.
Knee injuries including ACL tears are common in athletes. The Anterior Cruciate Ligament is the connective band of tissue that is responsible for stability within the knee. Unlike the at-home treatment for sprains and strains, if you think you may have injured your ACL, especially if you heard a “popping” sound during the activity you were engaging in, it’s time to see a doctor right away. Although these injuries are common, they are among the most severe. ACL tears are “graded” by medical professionals on a three-tier severity scale. The more severe an injury is, the longer it will likely take to heal completely, and will potentially need to be surgically repaired. When the ACL is partially torn, the prognosis after recovery and rehab is usually in the vicinity of three months. In cases where the ACL is completely torn, however, these types of injury typically require surgical repair and recovery can take up to 6 to 12 months to heal.
As hard to believe as it might be, sometimes broken bones (fractures) take less time to heal than severe sprains, strains or muscle tears. A broken finger for example, can have you back out on the field, court or course in a matter of 3 to 4 weeks. But a broken arm? Severe fractures of the forearm can take three to six months to completely heal, and may require a rehabilitation period as well. It all depends on which bone was fractured and how severe that fracture was.
While it may be enticing for you to “rub some dirt on it” and jump back into the game after suffering an injury – don’t do it! Give it time to heal. Musculoskeletal injuries that haven’t been given enough time to heal can have a way of coming back to haunt you hours, days, weeks or even months down the road. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. So listen to it. And of course, see a sports medicine physician if the pain is severe or hasn’t subsided within a few days.