Athletes are known for mental toughness, for having the grit to power through to finish a competition strong.
Some, however, don’t just push themselves to victory. They actually ignore serious injuries and push their bodies past healthy limits.
We sat down with Casey Smith, head athletic trainer for the past 12 seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and member of the U.S. Olympic Committee medical staff, to ask about his approach to injuries when working with professional and Olympic athletes. Here’s his advice for overcoming injury and achieving a robust recovery.
Q: Is it fairly common for people to ignore their injuries?
Casey: You’d be surprised that roughly a third of people don’t give the proper attention to their injuries — which only leads to more problems.
Q: What are the most common injuries?
Casey: In my experience, more sprains in team sports and more strains for the weekend athlete. More specifically, overuse injuries like muscle strains and tendinitis are the most common. This would include things like shin splints and plantar fascia issues.
Q: Why are overuse injuries the most common?
Casey: Oftentimes, people don’t let their bodies warm up and adjust properly. When you have a rapid rise in intensity without that adjustment period, you’re prone to injury. Be sure to enter new activities, especially strenuous ones, lightly.
Q: I’ve had an injury. Now what?
Casey: The first step is to protect the affected area, for example, taping an injured toe to its healthy neighbor. Don’t do further damage by assuming the injury is insignificant. After that, assess and diagnose the injury. This second part sometimes requires a medical professional.
Q: What do I need to know about swelling?
Casey: The primary goal the first two to three days is to control swelling. The more you can control this, the more quickly you can get back to full range of motion.
Q: Should I put ice on my injury?
Casey: There is a lot of literature out there about ice, its benefits, or lack thereof. The bottom line is applying ice to an injury won’t cause any harm. It won’t speed up your return to activity, but it won’t delay it either.
Q: What about compression? Doesn’t that help reduce swelling?
Casey: Compression, when used conservatively, can be a definite benefit, but I caution athletes to not rely on it completely. The key to compression is getting the appropriate amount of pressure. If you have too much pressure, you can restrict blood flow or range of motion.
Q: Should I take any medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen?
Casey: My advice here is to proceed with caution. Oftentimes, people lean on this method of pain relief a little too much, especially in a situation where the pain is the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong.
Q: What about homeopathic treatments?
Casey: We don’t use liniments or anything that can be absorbed through the skin, but my team and I are fans of Epsom salt soaks for injuries.
Q: Is elevating the injury really that important?
Casey: It’s surprising how often this can get overlooked. We tell our athletes to elevate as much as possible; it can improve symptoms greatly.
Q: What are the recovery goals after an injury?
Casey: To try and gradually return to a full range of motion, followed by full strength, and then a return to activity. The key is a gradual progression. A re-injury to the same area can often be worse than the initial injury if you jump right back into your previous level of activity after the initial pain or discomfort is gone.
Q: When can I start the rehabilitation process?
Casey: Once the initial swelling has peaked or swelling has started to decrease, that’s when you can start concentrating on rehabilitation. Start with a return to normal weight bearing, balance activities, light muscle contractions, and motion above and below the injured joint.
Q: How do I know if I should see a medical professional for an injury?
Casey: Any injury that has intense bone pain or nerve pain (usually a burning or tingling sensation), intense swelling still present at the 48-hour mark, or that has kept you from your desired activity level for one to two weeks should be seen by a doctor.