Body + Mind is reader-supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through some of the links on our site.
There are many causes of sports injuries, some of which are out of the athlete’s control. Playing sports always carries some risk, even if you take all the necessary precautions. Here are the seven most common causes of sports injuries, different types of injuries and some popular treatment methods. This information will help you avoid pain in the future and become a more well-rounded athlete.
The most common causes of sports injuries are overuse, malnutrition, poor posture, bad training technique, suboptimal recovery, faulty equipment and unstable playing surfaces. The athlete’s genetics and body type also play a role, since some people are more susceptible to particular injuries than others.
Of course, luck is also involved. Some athletes stay healthy for years, while others have a string of unrelated injuries within a few months. You can do everything right and still suffer a freak accident. Take a look at these causes in greater detail.
Overuse is the most common cause of sports injuries by a longshot. In most cases, injuries occur simply because the body part is too stressed and fatigued. If you put too much pressure on muscles, tendons or ligaments, they will eventually sprain or tear. This general rule applies to all sports.
For example, the NBA saw a spike in soft tissue injuries in 2021 due to its condensed season format. Players didn’t have as much time to rest between games, which made them more tired and injury prone. Another prominent example is the rise of injuries among one-sport youth athletes because they put too much stress on specific body parts from a young age.
Injury rates also tend to increase later in the season, which is why load management has become so common in sports like basketball and hockey. Many teams bench their star players or aging veterans for a handful of games to ensure they’re healthy and well-rested for the playoffs. The fans don’t like it, but it’s often a necessary precaution.
The second most common cause of sports injuries is malnutrition. Athletes must fuel themselves with a balanced diet to remain at peak performance. If their diet slips, their performance declines and they become more susceptible to injuries. Their muscles are weaker and they don’t have the stamina to pull off the same athletic feats.
Being overweight or obese can also increase your injury risk because the excess body fat impedes your movement and puts additional stress on your bones, muscles and joints. Maintaining a healthy body composition with a nutritious diet is crucial to injury prevention.
Posture is one of the most overlooked causes of injuries. If your back and neck are hunched all day, you’re more likely to hurt those areas. Poor posture starts with minor aches and pains but eventually leads to joint degeneration and spinal dysfunction if left unchecked. Your muscles also need to work harder to stay in their proper position, which puts more unnecessary strain on your body.
It’s not a coincidence that high-level athletes have great posture. One of the reasons they became so successful was because they didn’t fall into poor posture habits. You can significantly improve your longevity in your chosen sport just by keeping your neck and back straight.
Bad training technique is one of the common causes of sports injuries among young and inexperienced athletes. They haven’t learned their sport’s fundamentals yet, so they do certain exercises or movements improperly and suffer an injury as a result.
You’ll also often see lots of injuries at the beginning of the season when athletes are still rusty from taking extensive time off. For example, when the NFL had to cancel its preseason games in 2020 due to COVID-19, the league’s injury rate spiked in the first few weeks of the regular season because players didn’t have time to get their bodies up to speed.
Injuries are bound to occur when athletes don’t take their recovery seriously. Recovery comes in many forms, including sleep, stretching, massaging and other types of therapy. If you neglect one of these things, you’re not giving your body the rest it needs to perform at a high level. Static stretching is particularly useful for recovery, relaxing your deeper connective tissue and improving your mobility over time.
Sleep is the most important aspect of recovery by far. Extensive research has shown sleeping less than seven hours every night can almost double the risk of injury, especially among adolescents. Sleep deprivation also impedes protein synthesis, immune system function and your body’s natural inflammatory response, all of which can lead to an injury.
Sometimes, athletes suffer injuries from using faulty equipment. Footwear is the most likely suspect. If your shoes or cleats don’t provide good traction and ankle support, you’re bound to suffer a lower leg injury eventually. Professional sports leagues have strict uniform codes to prevent issues like this from happening.
Other types of padding might also offer insufficient protection. Football helmets are the most well-known examples — they’ve undergone many design changes in recent years to improve player safety. If your pads don’t fit correctly, they will also impede your movement and do more harm than good.
An unstable playing surface is another injury risk factor athletes don’t have much control over. If the court or field is too slippery, players are in danger of hurting themselves any time they make a sudden change in direction. Coaches aren’t shy about voicing their opinions when their teams have to play on unstable surfaces.
On the flip side, a field or court with too much traction can be equally dangerous. MetLife Stadium — home of the New York Giants and New York Jets — has caused many lower leg injuries because players’ cleats get caught in the slit film turf. You should always double-check the safety of a playing surface before moving at full speed.
Acute and chronic are the main types of sports injuries. Acute injuries are the sudden results of random incidents, while chronic injuries develop over time. They might begin with an acute injury, then become worse later on if the injury fails to heal properly. Chronic injuries might also be related to your genetics, just like certain illnesses.
Acute injuries are the main injuries athletes need to worry about. They can happen in an instant and change an entire career trajectory. Every athlete suffers an acute injury now and then, despite their best efforts — that’s the risk of playing organized sports. Even with all the rules and safety precautions, people still get hurt sometimes.
Though acute injuries pose a more immediate risk, chronic injuries can be more painful and debilitating. Even athletes who manage to avoid acute injuries can develop a chronic condition late in their careers. The human body can only take so much physical damage before it starts to fall apart.
Now that you know the most common causes of injuries in athletics, take a deeper dive into the specific injuries that affect each body part. These are the most common types of sport injuries, from head to toe.
Concussions are the most prevalent head injuries by a significant margin. They’re regular occurrences in any sport that involves tackling or hitting — especially combat sports, football, hockey and rugby. Doctors still don’t know much about the long-term effects of concussions, but research on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has greatly increased in recent years.
Lacerations to the head or face are also dangerous because of the many blood vessels near the surface of the skin. They might not be painful, but they can lead to a dangerous amount of blood loss. Don’t take them lightly.
Strains and contusions are the most common neck injuries. Cervical fractures and dislocations are also possible, but they fortunately don’t happen often in sports. However, it’s common for athletes to experience nerve root problems later in life. This chronic issue is the result of all the minor damage that builds up over the years.
Muscle strains in the lower back and traps are the most common back injuries. These areas have dense muscle tissue and are under constant tension, so they’re more sensitive than most other body parts. Herniated discs are usually chronic issues that develop over time due to increased stress on an area of the spine.
The rotator cuff is the most injury-prone part of the shoulder because it’s the main tendon responsible for the arm’s mobility and stability. It plays a crucial role in any throwing or swinging motion, so it often experiences inflammation from overuse. “Frozen shoulder” is a well-known symptom of rotator cuff issues. The labrum is another sensitive area you must look out for.
Conditions like “tennis elbow” and “golfer’s elbow” are different forms of epicondylitis — an injury that causes painful inflammation and mobility issues in the elbow joint. Baseball players and football quarterbacks are also highly susceptible to UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) injuries because of how much they throw.
Hand and wrist fractures are some of the most common bone-related injuries for everyone, not just athletes. They don’t have much muscle tissue around them, so they’re easier to break. Jammed and broken fingers are also extremely common for this reason. People use their hands for everything, so they’re bound to take some damage.
Sports hernias — tearing of soft tissue in the abdomen or groin area — are the only noteworthy injuries athletes suffer in the midsection. These painful injuries occur when someone makes a sudden twisting movement that the body wasn’t prepared for. Blunt abdominal trauma is another minor injury that often occurs in contact sports, but the pain is usually tolerable.
Your hips, pelvis and groin are some of the most sensitive body parts. Groin strains, hip impingements and labral tears are all common injuries in athletics. Additionally, these areas have a significant impact on your knee health. By doing hip and knee strengthening exercises together, you can decrease their pain by 3.3 points on a 1-10 scale.
Almost all thigh injuries are strains or tears to the hamstrings, quadriceps or adductors. Hamstrings are the most problematic lower body muscles for athletes, especially runners. These muscle groups are also prone to bruising in sports like football, hockey and rugby. The femur is the strongest bone in the body so you don’t have to worry about breaking it.
Athletes seem to have a bigger problem with knees than any other body part. These joints are under constant stress when you exercise or play sports, so they suffer many types of injuries. ACL and MCL injuries are the most severe. Almost every athlete suffers from patellofemoral pain syndrome — kneecap pain and swelling — at some point in their careers.
The ankles are also extremely sensitive areas, but they’re not quite as problematic as the knees. Ankle breaks and strains are common, and they often lead to re-injury or chronic problems because they don’t have a chance to heal properly. Athletes are always on their feet, which means their ankles can’t recover.
Feet are almost as injury-prone as knees and ankles. You might have noticed a common theme with the different parts of the lower leg — this area takes the majority of the damage from running, so it’s naturally going to suffer more injuries. Plantar fasciitis is the most common foot issue, causing pain and inflammation in the heel area. “Turf toe” is a joint sprain in the big toe that also causes severe pain when walking or running.
Although you can’t be 100% safe from injuries when playing your favorite sports, you can still take some effective steps to reduce the risk. As discussed in the most common causes of sports injuries, you need to exercise in moderation, keep a balanced diet, have good posture and training techniques, and prioritize your recovery.
You must also ensure the equipment and playing surface are up to standard before playing. These steps will help you avoid acute injuries in the short term and chronic injuries in the long run.