What to Do Immediately Following a Sports Injury

How to determine if you can rehab an injury on your own.

If you play sports, you will sustain some bumps and bruises. It's the inevitable consequence of competing and pushing your body to its limits.

And sometimes, you might hurt yourself beyond a simple bump or bruise in a game, practice or workout—the worst fear of most athletes. A serious injury means time away from your team, rehabbing rather than playing your sport and getting better.

For serious injuries, there's not much you can do outside of going through the rehab process as prescribed by your medical professional. Injuries happen, and it's best to focus on attacking your rehab so you can get back to your sport as quickly as possible.

But what about minor injuries? The injuries that are only mildly painful that you might even be able to play through (think a slight muscle pull, a jammed finger or a rolled ankle). These injuries can often be managed on your own and will have minimal impact on your performance if you handle your rehab correctly.

Here are five tips to properly manage a sports injury:

Tip 1: Do a self-assessment

When you first suspect an injury, the location and intensity of the pain will ultimately dictate your next steps. Do you feel some mild pain of about 3 or so on a scale of 1-10? Odds are you have a minor injury that you can play through and address after the game. Or do you have intense pain, swelling and bruising, instability, or an inability to use a joint or muscle group? Unfortunately, you have a more serious injury that requires medical attention.

Tip 2: Have a team athletic trainer, physical therapist or doctor check the injury

Regardless if you have minor pain or a severe injury, you should have a medical professional check the injury. They can give you a firm go-ahead that it's safe to continue playing or take you out of the game if you have a severe injury or are at risk of suffering one. If you don't have access to a medical professional, get a second opinion from your coach or a strength coach.

Tip 3: Remember you have the power

You know your body and how you feel. If you're in pain and fear that you're injured, there's no shame in taking yourself out of the game without fear of backlash from your teammates or coaches. The "just suck it up" mentality doesn't work. Of course, many people may be disappointed—including yourself—that you can't play. However, toughing it out puts you at risk for making the injury worse than it already is, and can hurt your team because you can't perform anywhere close to your potential.

Editor's note: I personally attempted to tough out two broken collarbones and a fairly severe MCL sprain that I sustained playing hockey. I thought I could continue playing despite the pain and was encouraged to by my coaches. Each time, I was completely ineffective and in extreme pain and took myself off the ice after about 30 seconds. Fortunately, I didn't hurt myself even more or cost my team a goal, but trying to return from injury too quickly were not the best decisions I've ever made.

Tip 4: Rehab the injury

You avoided the worst. You definitely have an injury, but it's not overly painful, and you can manage it on your own.

Now you need to find the correct way to rehab it. Again, consulting with a medical professional to properly identify the injury is the way to go. But we understand this isn't always possible or realistic, so here's what you can do.

First and foremost, you should follow the P.O.L.I.C.E. method, not the old-school R.I.C.E. method.P.O.L.I.C.E. stands for:

  • P – Protect the Injury
  • OL – Optimal Loading
  • I – Ice
  • C – Compression
  • E – Elevation

You can read more about how to use this method here.

You can then move into treating the actual injury and restoring function, which will vary depending on the type and location of the injury. Here are a few ways to address common minor injuries from Dr. Matt Stevens, physical therapist and owner of Pure Physio (Strongsville, Ohio).

Tip 5: Don't push it

We understand you probably don't want to sit out a play or even miss a workout, nevermind miss a game. It's the competitive nature that exists in most athletes. But sometimes, injuries require rest to fully recover. Even seemingly minor injuries can indeed keep you out of the game, and you're better off taking time off rather than competing, which could prevent the injury from actually healing.

For example, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski recently sat out a game because of a bruised thigh. Does this sound like a severe injury? No. But it could've resulted in something more severe if he didn't let it rest—his body may have compensated, and he could've hurt himself in a completely different part of his body. Gronk sat a game out and game back with a huge game, scoring two touchdowns.