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The (Exercise) Science of Injury Recovery

4 Min Read

A No-sweat Guide To Four Common Sports Injuries

In professional and recreational sports, injuries come with the territory. From ankle sprains to torn ACLs, even the most common in juries can put an athlete on the bench or sideline for months. With proper care and the expertise of a physical therapist, an injured player can safely get back in the game. Here are four of the most common sports injuries and an exercise science approach to symptoms and recovery.

Watch Your Step: Ankle Sprain

Stretching or tearing of the ligaments within the ankle

An ankle sprain typically happens when a foot rolls under the ankle, and can range from mild, moderate, to severe depending on whether the ligaments are overstretched or torn.

Occurs commonly in: basketball, soccer

Fast-paced running, cutting, and jumping puts extreme stress on the lower limbs, making ankle sprains especially common in basketball.


Most sprains don’t require surgery, and treatment involves crutches, walking boots, or cats. Whatever the severity, complete rehabilitation is required, starting with R.I.C.E. – rest, ice, compression, and elevation – and followed by ankle strengthening exercises. Recovery can range from 2 to 12 weeks.

65% of NBA and WNBA injuries occur in the lower extremity, with lateral ankle sprains as the most common diagnosis.1

Keep Your Head in the Game: Concussion

Stretching or tearing of nerve tissue in the brain

A concussion can occur when the head is suddenly struck or violently shaken, causing the brain to bump against the inside of the skull.

Occurs commonly in: football, soccer

High-contact tackling in football means players are susceptible to concussions, whether by contact with another player or with the playing surface.


Although athletes who suffer from a blow to the head may play through concussions and leave the injury undiagnosed, the best recovery is cognitive and physical rest. Additional trauma after a concussion can lead to chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

Amid controversy over the frequency of concussions, the NFL reported that the number of concussions in regular season games from 2014 to 2015 increased by 58%.2

Your Knee’s Needs: ACL Tear

Tear in the one of four main ligaments of the knee

A collision, sudden deceleration, or landing maneuver can tear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and damage the rotational stability of the knee.

Occurs commonly in: soccer, football, basketball

Cutting and planting in soccer involve rapidly changing direction or deceleration, placing stress on the knee and can cause a ligament to snap.


When a torn ACL requires surgery, a tendon graft replaces the torn ligament and serves as scaffolding where the new ligament can grow. Rigorous physical therapy should follow to help the player regain a full range of movement and strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings. Recovery can take 6 to 12 months.

Female athletes are 3x more likely to sustain a knee ligament injury in soccer and basketball than their male counterparts, due to hormonal and anatomical differences, some research suggests.3

Stay Armed: Ulnar Collateral Ligament Tear

A tear to the UCL of the arm

Prolonged stress from repetitive overhead throwing motions can weaken the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and cause it to tear.

Occurs commonly in: baseball

A more common injury among pitchers, UCL tears often require “Tommy John surgery, named after to L.A. Dodgers pitcher who was the first to undergo UCL reconstruction surgery in 1974.


When a UCL tear requires surgery, physical therapy can help strengthen the arm, starting from the handgrip all the way up to the shoulder blade and upper back muscles. Full recovery can take 12 to 18 months.

From 1999-2011, the average number of MLB pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery each season hovered below 16, but in recent years, that number has increased to 25-30.4

Sports injuries will happen, but the secret to getting players back in the game safely and speedily lies in the expertise of a physical therapist or exercise scientist. Learn how you can get players back on the field through an online exercise science degree.


  1. “Injury Risk in Professional Basketball Players,” 2006, The American Journal of Sports Medicine
  2. “NFL to Study Why Diagnosed Concussions Rose Significantly in ’15,” 2016, ESPN
  3. “A Meta-Analysis of the Incidence of Anterior Cruciate Ligament Tears as a Function of Gender, Sport, and Knee Injury-Reduction Regimen,” 2007, Arthroscopy: The Journal of Arthroscopic & Related Surgery
  4. “What We’ve Missed About Tommy John Surgery,” 2015, ESPN

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