Tips for avoiding sports-related injuries

American football players positioning for a play

Playing sports is fun, but sports-related injuries are not. In 2021, 3.2 million people were treated in emergency rooms for injuries involving sports and recreational equipment.

To help you keep the fun going uninterrupted, UAB Medicine experts shared the following safety tips for protecting the eyes, mouth, and body from sports-related injuries.

Eye safety

Nearly 30,000 sports-related eye injuries are treated in emergency rooms each year in the United States. UAB School of Optometry Professor Katherine Weise, O.D., suggests these steps to help protect these sensitive parts of the body:

Get an eye exam. A comprehensive eye exam can help doctors diagnose vision problems and recommend treatment options to maximize vision and depth perception, which allows athletes to see more clearly and play better and more safely. Dr. Weise said eye exams could help minimize the risk of concussion by finding and treating vision problems that may lead to bumps, blows, or jolts to the head.

Wear protective sports goggles and face guards. Dr. Weise recommends looking for goggles and face guards with sturdy frames and lenses made of polycarbonate. Polycarbonate can withstand a high level of force or impact without breaking and can protect athletes from fingers and balls flying hitting the eyes.

Let natural tears wash out the speck. When athletes have a speck in their eye, Dr. Weise said it is best to try to let the natural tears wash it out. If not, commercially available eye wash should be used.

Some eye injuries can be more serious than they appear. Athletes who experience any of the following symptoms should go to the doctor immediately:

  • Flashes of light, lots of floaters, or reduced side vision
  • Double vision
  • Blurry vision
  • Eye pain
  • Light sensitivity
  • Red eye

The eyes often play a role in sports-related head injuries. The Vestibular and Oculomotor Research Clinic (VORC) is located within UAB Eye Care and conducts research to identify markers of mild traumatic brain injury, also known as concussion, in athletes. Concussion-related vision and vestibular symptoms often include headache, dizziness and balance problems, eye strain, and intermittent double or blurry vision. The VORC houses state-of-the-art equipment to test vestibular, oculomotor, and balance function after a concussion.

Dental safety

Dentists estimate that 13-39% of dental injuries occur while playing sports. UAB School of Dentistry Professor Stephen Mitchell, DMD, said these injuries often can be prevented by following a few simple tips:

Wear a mouthguard. Mouthguards are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment available to protect teeth. Mouthguards can help athletes avoid chipped or broken teeth, nerve damage, and tooth loss. The American Dental Association recommends wearing a properly fitted mouthguard to reduce the number and severity of oral injuries in sporting or recreational activities – especially activities with significant risk of dental trauma or facial injury. Sometimes this may require custom mouthguards made by the dentist.

Wear a facemask, if appropriate. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends athletes such as baseball and softball players wear a facemask, not just a mouthguard. Dr. Mitchell said this is especially recommended for players younger than 13 whose hand and eye coordination may not be developed enough to help them react to a ball coming at their face.

Talk with a dentist. A dental health care provider can help an athlete determine the best safety precautions for their sport. Dr. Mitchell said it is important to be prepared for injuries during certain sports seasons. To prepare for a dislodged tooth, for example, he recommends purchasing an American Dental Association-approved tooth preservation kit, which is available online.

“If a permanent tooth gets knocked out, it can immediately be placed into the fluid in this case, and this will improve the chances of the tooth being reimplanted successfully,” Dr. Mitchell said.

For fractures, Dr. Mitchell recommends seeing the dentist immediately. “If a tooth is broken and the ‘pulp’ of the tooth is visible, meaning blood can be seen in the middle of the tooth, this needs immediate attention,” Dr. Mitchell said. “Go to your dentist immediately, or take your child to the emergency room.”

Concussion and other injuries

When it comes to general sports injuries, Ian McKeag, M.D., a sports medicine physician and an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, said they vary by sport and age.

“Concussions, overuse injuries, and heat-related injuries and illnesses are all major concerns that we have for our athletes,” Dr. McKeag said. “Unfortunately, most of the causes behind these injuries boil down to the fundamental nature of the sport, of competition, and of exercise as a whole.”

Dr. McKeag said concussions are common and have been a hot topic of discussion in recent years, especially in physical contact sports.

Overuse injuries can be caused by the repetitive forces put on the body during exercise. In children, overuse can cause inflammation of the growth plate of the bone, similar to a stress fracture in adults. Children who play the same sport all year can be at greater risk for injuries, especially overuse injuries.

Heat-related injuries and illnesses are more common in hot and humid states. Dr. McKeag said many athletes are not acclimated to exercising in the heat, especially with added sports gear. Heat injuries are even more of a concern for younger children, as their bodies may not be able to regulate heat as well as older athletes.

Here are some steps you can take to help prevent these injuries:

Be knowledgeable about sports-related injuries. Dr. McKeag said that when parents educate themselves on the nature of injuries surrounding the sports their child is playing, they can take proactive steps to prevent them.

Do it right. An individual’s biomechanics (how the body’s muscles, tendons, bones, and ligaments work together) often play a pivotal role in their risk for injuries. Dr. McKeag said that by learning and practicing the correct technique and ensuring proper biomechanics, overuse injuries can be reduced or prevented.

Get the right footwear. Dr. McKeag has found that many young athletes sacrifice function for style. Getting a shoe that fits both the size and shape of one’s feet is key.

After experiencing a sports-related injury, Dr. McKeag recommends visiting a doctor if an athlete experiences any of the symptoms below.

  • Limping
  • Joints feel “unstable,” with or without a typical injury response
  • Soreness or achiness around a bone or joint that is getting worse over time
  • Frequent joint swelling

“Even if you are not experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to know that you do not need to be incapacitated to see a doctor,” Dr. McKeag said. “Our team at UAB Sports & Exercise Medicine is here whenever you need us. To be honest, we would rather see you before the injury than after. We are trained to help identify biomechanical issues and muscle imbalances in athletes of all ages, and we work with each of our patients to help develop the best treatment plan for them.”

Make an appointment with a UAB Sports & Exercise Medicine provider by clicking here, or click here to make an appointment with UAB Dentistry.

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