What Is an Overuse Injury? Diagnosis and Prevention
No doubt you have heard the term “overuse injury” on a number of different occasions and in any number of contexts.
But which injuries are the result of overuse? And how can you prevent overuse injuries no matter what your sport?
What is an overuse injury, and how is it caused?
Unlike an acute injury, which occurs due to a traumatic incident, overuse injuries occur gradually over an undetermined length of time.
The culmination of countless repetitive motions, an overuse injury causes micro-trauma to the tendons, joints, or bones. This micro-trauma can cause macro pain and debilitation, sometimes even requiring surgery to repair.
In addition to repetitive motion, training and technique errors, strength and flexibility imbalances, body alignment, and improper equipment can also lead to overuse injuries.
It is important to note that overuse injuries aren’t just limited to athletics. Those whose jobs or hobbies require repetitive motion over a long period of time may also find themselves with an overuse injury.
Which injuries are considered overuse injuries?
We hear the word “overuse” frequently, but which injuries qualify as overuse injuries?
Here are some common overuse injuries and a few details about them.
- IT band syndrome—The iliotibial band runs down the outer leg from the hip to the ankle. Repetitive motion such as from running or biking can cause the band to rub against the bone, resulting in irritation, pain, and swelling.
- Jumper’s knee—This form of tendinitis can sideline those who do a great deal of running and/or jumping. Jumper’s knee is the inflammation of the patellar tendon, which is located on the lower edge of the patella (kneecap).
- Plantar fasciitis—This injury is often seen in runners, particularly those who are beginners. The plantar fascia, which is fibrous tissue, connects the front to the back of the foot and supports the arch. Plantar fasciitis is the inflammation of this tissue, which causes heel and arch pain, and is more pronounced upon waking.
- Runner’s knee— Also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), runner’s knee is an umbrella term for a number of different types of pain in and around the patella. Runner’s knee is most often caused by overuse, but it can also be caused by a blow to the knee, muscle imbalances, misaligned bones, or foot issues. The most common symptom is pain either in the front of the kneecap, on the sides, or even behind it.
- Shin splints—The scourge of newbie runners, shin splints are the painful inflammation of the connecting tendons and muscles that line the shin bone. Dull, aching or throbbing pain, and even tenderness to the touch are the symptoms of shin splints. Running on hard surfaces, wearing the wrong type of gym shoes, or increasing the intensity of training too quickly all can cause or exacerbate shin splints.
- Stress fractures—Any activity— running and jogging or playing basketball or tennis, for example—can cause tiny fractures in the bones of the lower leg and the foot. Pain, including tenderness to the touch, can be an indicator of a stress fracture in one specific spot. However, because of their small size, they are often hard to see on x-rays.
- Tennis elbow—As the name suggests, this overuse injury usually plagues those who play racquet sports. A form of tendinitis, tennis elbow is inflammation of the tendon that connects the forearm to the outside of the elbow, causing pain, burning, and possibly grip weakness. This injury can also affect those whose work or hobbies include repetitive motions such as hammering, weeding, etc.
How are overuse injuries diagnosed and treated?
Usually, professional medical help is a good idea when dealing with an overuse injury. If not allowed to heal completely, an overuse injury will tend to recur.
Be sure to provide your doctor with a thorough rundown of your physical activities and the level at which you train to ensure an appropriate diagnosis.
Your doctor may need an x-ray or an MRI to confirm your injury definitively.
Even in the mildest cases of an overuse injury, most likely, your doctor will order a period of rest from the repetitive motion activity. Then, depending on the injury, you may be able to train differently to allow the injury to heal while still maintaining some level of conditioning.
For instance, runners who have shin splints may be able to bike or swim instead of running to maintain cardiovascular condition while eliminating the impact stress on the legs.
The doctor may also suggest that you apply ice to the injured area if swelling is an issue. He/she may suggest taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to alleviate some inflammation and pain.
Depending on the injury and its severity, your doctor may also order a course of physical therapy, including stretching and strengthening exercises.
Preventing overuse injuries
Although it would make sense that overuse injuries should be confined to adults since they have been making the repetitive motion in question for a longer period of time, overuse injuries can afflict children and adolescents as well.
As more and more young people are involved in sports, and as more of them are pushed to specialize in one sport, the number of overuse injuries in this population has increased dramatically over the years.
As mentioned above, the most obvious way to recover is to rest. You don’t necessarily need to stop training, but you might try cross-training…biking and/or swimming instead of running, biking, and/or swimming instead of tennis, etc.
Warm-up and cool-down
Incorporating warm-up and cool-down periods before and after exercise can help ward off overuse injuries. Loosening up your muscles and joints helps better prepare your body for exercise. Likewise, cooling down after exercise signals the switch for your body to gradually return to homeostasis.
If you are just beginning to exercise or are switching to a new, different type of exercise, start slowly. Overuse injuries tend to increase when athletes push too hard, too fast. Although you might be eager to, resist the urge to jump in feet first, so to speak. By starting slowly and gradually increasing the duration and intensity of exercise, you will help safeguard your body from injury.
The same holds true for those who are already participating in a certain sport but who want to increase the time and intensity of their workouts. Start slowly and increase gradually. It may be mentally challenging for some to hold themselves back but consider starting slowly as a long-term investment.
It is better to ease into things and be able to exercise on a daily basis for the long haul than to start fast, become injured, and then have to spend time recuperating and rehabbing.
Proper technique is important! Whether it is swinging a racquet or a bat, running, or lifting weights, learning to do it properly can help keep you injury-free. Coaches, trainers, and physical therapists can educate you on the proper form and ensure you are exercising safely to avoid injury.
It is easy to become discouraged if an overuse injury derails your training. Once you have recovered, you may feel apprehensive about returning to the same type of exercise for fear of a recurrence.
Exploring different training methods during your recovery will allow you to maintain fitness and facilitate a complete recovery rather than trying to return before your injury has healed appropriately. This will better set the stage for a long-term, overuse injury-free exercise regimen.
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