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Sports injuries at the elite level

Aug 16, 2023 | Injury, Surgery

To succeed as an elite athlete, you need a strong, healthy body. That’s fostered through regular training to improve fitness, a healthy diet and rejuvenating sleep. 

Thanks to that disciplined lifestyle, elite athletes tend to be healthier than the general population. You’re likely to live longer and experience lower rates of cancer or cardiovascular disease. 

But if you’re an elite athlete and I ask you what it means to be healthy, you won’t be talking about reducing your cancer risk. Your answer is likely to centre on being healthy enough to compete. That’s what matters most to you.

As German researchers note, in the context of elite sports: 

  • ‘Health’ is directly linked to the ability to perform in a competition
  • Health-related decisions are governed by the ability to perform at the top level
  • Athletes accept some inherent health risks such as the risk of injury
  • Athletes are willing to take significant health risks in order to succeed in important competitions
  • Athletes are caught in a permanent action dilemma – the necessity of risking and securing their health simultaneously. 

Perhaps that’s why the incidence of injuries during international athletic competitions is 10-14% of the total number of athletes in the world championships. 

 

Sports injuries in elite athletes

As an elite athlete, you push your body in order to win. Your greatest fear is an injury that knocks you out of the competition. You’ll need time out to recover and regain your fitness – meanwhile, your competitors race ahead. 

If a major competition is looming, you’ll be tempted to push through. And if another competition follows soon after, you may keep powering on despite nagging pain. Two of the most common reasons for reinjury are:

  • Lack of an adequate rehabilitation program
  • Premature return to training after injury. 

 

The most common injuries in elite athletes

A review of research findings related to injuries in elite athletes noted that the most commonly injured site is the Thigh muscles (front and back).

Hamstrings

The muscles at the back of the thigh have complex functions and may serve as hip extensors, knee flexors and external rotors of the hip and knee.

Athletes and footballers often sustain injuries to the muscles at the back of the thigh when:

  • Sprinting
  • Accelerating or decelerating
  • Jumping
  • Pivoting. 

Hamstring injuries are most common in sprinting, hurdles and jumping events. They account for one-third to one-half of injuries in this group. Three-quarters of rehabilitation time is spent on hamstring injuries. 

Unfortunately, the published literature shows no consensus on the: 

  • Time needed to return to the sports field after a hamstring injury
    • A mild injury may take 3 weeks while a severe one may end your career
    • An MRI scan is recommended after 6 weeks to provide accurate data to guide your recovery and return to training
  • Criteria for recovery after a hamstring injury
  • Impact of the congested competition schedule on player health. 

Quadriceps

Your quads experience maximum stress in running and jumping, which frequently puts them at risk of injury. 

Injuries here are often due to inadequate training at the right intensity, leading to overstretch and muscle load. Other causes include: 

  • Pelvic injuries 
  • Inadequate rehabilitation after surgery
  • Degenerative changes due to long-term immobilisation, metabolic diseases, jumper’s knee and steroid abuse.  

 

Causes of injury

So why do these injuries happen? There are many potential answers depending on the discipline in question but, 

 “…the causes of most injuries are due to overstraining and overload syndrome. These causes often arise from training procedures that have been implemented inadequately and usually relate to the volume and intensity of training without the application of injury prevention techniques.”

Overuse injuries result from the cumulative process of tissue damage causing repetitive microtrauma and overload in the musculoskeletal system. If those tissues had sufficient time to recover, they would heal before the problem became any worse. The problem is that many elite athletes do not have the necessary time to recover between training sessions and competitions. Microtrauma becomes a chronic problem and tissues then struggle to regenerate properly, sometimes triggering retirement from elite sport. 

 

How can we help? 

As an elite athlete, you may have a difficult relationship with health and injury. In an ideal world, you’d take all the time you need to recover whether from a microtrauma or a major injury. 

But you don’t live in an ideal world. You’ve got a busy training schedule and one competition follows hot on the heels of another.

I work with many elite athletes and understand the pressures you face. As an orthopaedic surgeon, I focus on conditions affecting the knee and shoulder, supporting both surgical and non-surgical treatment routes and ensuring you receive appropriate rehabilitation to give you the best chance of returning to your chosen sport. 

To learn more, please get in touch

 

Disclaimer

All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Dr Ross Radic can consult with you to determine if a particular treatment or procedure is right for you. A second opinion may help you decide on your options.