Sports injuries

Read about specific sports injuries, including injuries to the back, bones, hamstrings, head, heel, joints, knees, shoulder and skin.

Sport injuries can affect almost any part of the body, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments).

Sprains and strains are the most common type of sports injury. The difference between a strain and a sprain is that a:

  • sprain happens when one or more of the ligaments are stretched, twisted or torn
  • muscle strain ("pulling a muscle") happens when muscle tissues or fibres are stretched or torn.

Symptoms of a sprain or strain can include pain, swelling, bruising and tenderness around a joint or in a muscle. You may also find it difficult to move the affected body part.

Find out how to treat the following sports injuries:

Read treating sports injuries for more general information.

Back pain

Back pain is usually caused by a sprain or strain in the back. Warming up properly before exercise can reduce the risk of back pain.

Back pain is often felt as soreness, tension or stiffness in the lower back, but it can be felt anywhere from the neck and shoulders down to the buttocks and legs.

Bone injuries

Repetitive activity or a heavy impact while playing sport can injure bones, causing:

  • stress fractures – bone pain caused by tiny cracks that develop in a bone as a result of repeated stresses (for example, during high-impact activities like distance running)
  • shin splints – painful shins caused by inflammation in the tissues surrounding the shin bone; it's common in sports that involve running 
  • a broken ankle
  • a broken arm or wrist
  • a broken leg
  • a broken toe
  • a broken finger

A broken bone may cause swelling, significant bruising and tenderness around the injured area, and bleeding if the bone has broken the skin (an open fracture). It's unlikely you'll be able to use the affected limb.

The pain associated with a broken bone can be severe and make you feel faint, dizzy and sick.

If any part of your body looks deformed, including your fingers, you may have broken a bone. You should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.

Find out how how to tell if you've broken a bone.

Hamstring injuries

Hamstring injuries are tears to the tendons or large muscles at the back of the thighs. They're a common injury in athletes and recreational exercisers.

Sudden lunging, running or jumping can cause the hamstring tendons or muscles to tear, which can be felt or heard as a pop and will be immediately painful. The muscle will spasm (seize up) and feel tight and tender. In some cases, there may also be swelling and bruising.

Head injuries 

Minor head injuries, such as bumps and bruises, are common and aren't usually serious. If you have any concerns, see your GP or go to your local walk-in centre.

Go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 and ask for an ambulance if you develop any symptoms of a severe head injury, such as:

  • unconsciousness (even if it was only very brief)
  • difficulty staying awake or still being sleepy several hours after the injury
  • a seizure or fit (when your body suddenly moves uncontrollably)
  • difficulty speaking, such as slurred speech
  • significantly blurred vision or double vision
  • difficulty understanding what people say
  • vomiting

Read more about the signs of a severe head injury.

Heel pain

Heel pain can occur when the thick band of tissue that runs under the sole of the foot becomes inflamed. It's a common running injury.

It can cause a sharp and often severe pain when you place weight on your heel. In most cases, only one heel is affected, although some people have pain in both heels.

Heel pain and stiffness can also sometimes be caused by damage or tightness of the Achilles tendon, which runs up the back of the heel. This can occur gradually over a long period of time, or the tendon can suddenly rupture or tear.

If you experience sudden and severe pain in the back of your heel, which may be accompanied by a "popping" or "snapping" sound, you may have torn your Achilles tendon and should go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department immediately.

Swollen joints

Swollen joints can be caused by conditions that affect the joints or structures around joints, such as bursa and tendons. Bursa are small fluid-filled sacs underneath the skin, found over the joints and between tendons and bones.

Examples of these types of conditions include:

  • bursitis – a swollen bursa; bursitis is common in the knee, hip and elbow
  • tendonitis – a swollen tendon around the shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger, thigh, knee or back of the heel

Tennis elbow is inflammation of the muscles and tendons around the elbow joint. It affects the outside of the elbow and is usually caused by repetitive movement of the muscles in the lower arm. Golfer’s elbow is similar, but the inflammation occurs on the inside of the elbow.

Knee pain

Sudden knee pain is common in contact sports, particularly those that involve twisting. It's usually caused by a sprain, strain or tendonitis.

Other knee injuries include:

  • runner’s knee – caused by overuse of the knee; symptoms include soreness and discomfort beneath or to one side of your kneecap; it can also cause a grating sensation in your knee
  • cartilage damage – where a piece of cartilage breaks off, affecting the movement of your joint; your joint may feel like it's locking or catching and it may also sometimes give way
  • torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)  

Knee ligament damage

The ACL is one of four knee ligaments. It can tear if you stop or change direction suddenly, or if you land awkwardly from a jump. If you tear your ACL, you may hear a pop or crack at the time of the injury.

Other symptoms of a torn ACL include:

  • severe pain in your knee
  • instability in your knee, which means you can't put much weight on it, particularly when going up or down stairs
  • swelling in your knee
  • not having the full range of movement in your knee and, in particular, not being able to straighten your leg completely

Read more about ACL injuries

Shoulder pain

Shoulder pain is common in sports that involve bowling or throwing, such as cricket or baseball. Tendons around the shoulder (the rotor cuff) can become inflamed (tendonitis) or torn, causing pain.

A dislocated shoulder may be caused by a heavy fall or sudden impact. The upper arm painfully "pops" out of the shoulder joint and you won't be able to move your arm.

Go to your nearest A&E department if you think you've dislocated your shoulder. Supporting your arm with a sling while you make your way there may help reduce the pain.

Skin injuries

Rubbing or chafing of skin can be caused by poorly fitting shoes or clothes. Make sure your sports gear is appropriate for your activity to help prevent chafing.

Get medical advice as soon as possible if you have a severe skin injury, such as a deep cut that won't stop bleeding. You may need treatment to stop the bleeding and stitches to close the wound.


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