Whether you suddenly sprain your ankle or start to feel the pain of shin splints, the treatment is nearly always the same: rest, ice, compression, and elevation—the familiar RICE protocol.
Luckily, self-care tactics are usually enough to resolve the injury within a few weeks. But in some cases, it may be necessary to seek medical care for a sports injury.
Signs of an emergency
In most cases, someone with a sports injury can begin their recovery by stopping whatever activity they were doing, going home, and getting rest. But in some rare but serious cases, an injury is severe enough that it needs to be evaluated by a physician as soon as possible.
These are signs that someone with an injury needs immediate medical care in the ER:
- A joint or bone that is clearly broken, deformed, or dislocated
- Inability to support any weight or pressure on the affected area
- Extreme pain that is progressively getting worse
- Paralysis, tingling, or numbness
- Unsteady breathing or pulse
- Noticeable paleness
- Disorientation or confusion
Concussions require care
One type of injury that should involve medical care by a doctor is a mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion. If you suspect a concussion has occurred, you should consult with your doctor, who can evaluate your symptoms and offer guidance for recovery.
Athletes in particular need to make sure they are recovered and cleared for returning to play, because those who have a concussion and then suffer a second head injury risk a longer recovery time and further injury to the brain.
When a sports medicine physician can help
As the RICE protocol does its work and an injury begins to heal, many people can resume activity as their recovery allows.
But in the cases of an injury that isn't improving after a few weeks—or for serious athletes who want to avoid their performance being affected or reinjuring themselves when they return to play—the expertise of a sport medicine physician may be needed.
According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, a sports medicine physician has 1 to 2 years of additional training for nonoperative treatment of musculoskeletal problems, including acute, overuse, and mild traumatic brain injuries.
Here are some of the ways a sports medicine physician can help those recovering from a sports injury:
- They can pinpoint the diagnosis of the injury and give a good estimate of how long recovery will take and when returning to play is appropriate.
- They can advise what advanced treatments might be needed to help recovery, such as bracing or injections.
- They can customize a rehabilitation plan that takes into account not just the sport an athlete plays, but the athlete's position as well.
- They can help ensure that rehabilitation efforts build the right strength and support to avoid a reinjury or an overcompensation injury.
- They can provide recommendations for when treatment with a physical therapist and/or occupational therapist would be beneficial.
- They can provide performance-related advice for nutrition or taking supplements.
If you’re not sure whether seeing a sports medicine doctor is the right choice for you, ask your primary doctor.