Common Sports Injuries: Your Guide to How They Happen & Best Ways to Prevent Them

If you’re like most weekend warriors, you’re going to get hurt working out or playing sports.

To illustrate what I mean, I want to tell you a story.

I am 38 years old. About four months ago I started working out four to five days a week: elliptical for 30 minutes, then a circuit of planks, back extensions and weight machine work on my legs, arms and chest.

March came along and I joined a local softball team. I felt like I was in great shape, or at least decent shape.

During the seventh game of the season, I was on first base after getting my third hit of the night. We were down by a couple of runs, so crossing home plate was my top priority. The next batter looped a single into center field.

As I approached second base, I thought I had a chance at third base. I rounded the bag and just as I pushed off the base, I heard a pop. And some crackles. I never made it to third base.

Turns out I had some minor tears in my sartorius, the longest muscle in the body and part of the group of muscles that make up your quadriceps.

After my injury, a slew of questions jumped to mind. How serious is it? Can I keep playing? Should I go to the doctor? How do I prevent this from happening again?

My questions probably sound familiar to you if you’ve torn, strained or sprained something in the gym or on the playing field.

We reached out to some experts – some who’ve worked with professional and college sports teams – to find out common sports injuries in the arms and legs, how to know when to go to the doctor and how to reduce the likelihood of those injuries.

A Little Review of What’s in Your Arms and Legs

Before we jump into a breakdown of how your arms and legs can break down, we’re going to talk a bit about the anatomy of those limbs.

Three of the more popular words you’ll hear in the sports injury discussion are anatomical: muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Each of these parts plays a role in how your joints move, says Dr. Chantel Gorton, an orthopedic specialist at sports physical therapy firm Stride Strong in Portland, OR:

  • Ligaments: Structures that link a bone to a bone. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is an oft-injured knee ligament.
  • Tendons: Connect muscles to the bone. The patellar tendon is a popular injury spot. 
  • Muscles: Fibrous tissue that makes joints move. Quads and calves are well known leg muscles.

Ligaments stabilize your joints. Muscles can stabilize joints, too, but their primary function is to move joints.

Injuries happen, Dr. Gorton says, when ligaments, tendons and muscles undergo too much load (force).

“When muscles are under a strain that they cannot tolerate, they are going to break down in some way,” Dr. Gorton says. “If you overload an area of the body you’ll be subject to injury, whether it’s at the bone or ligament or muscle.”

In sports, those injuries take place all over the body. Two of the most common areas are the arms and legs.

The Arms: Where You’ll Most Likely Get Hurt

Aside from the occasional broken finger or wrist, the two main areas where you can expect to deal with injuries are your shoulder and your elbow.

Rotator Cuff Tears

The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that, basically, keep your arm in your shoulder socket. So, as you can imagine, any sport that forces you to move your arm suddenly or repetitively is prime territory for an injury. 

Your rotator cuff injury will happen one of two ways, says Dr. Gorton: through a single episode of overload, or through repetitive use. What does that mean for you? Well, you can hurt your rotator cuff playing sports and you can also hurt it at home.

“It can also happen from yard work or lifting heavy objects and above-shoulder motions,” she says.

  • Famous athletes with rotator-cuff injuries: Pedro Martinez, MLB (2007); Kobe Bryant, NBA (2015).
  • Sports where the injury is common: baseball, swimming, tennis, softball.
  • How you know you hurt it: Pain in the shoulder during the injurious motion and/or in the days after.
  • Dr. Gorton’s suggestion for prevention: Strengthen the group of muscles with light weight training (check with your gym’s trainers to find out which machines focus on this area).

Tennis Elbow/Golfer’s Elbow

Your elbow has tendons on the left side of the joint and the right side. Overuse in these areas is common with golfers and tennis players, says Dr. David Ochiai, a sports-medicine orthopedic surgeon at Nirschl Orthopaedic Center in Arlington, VA.

 “The same type of thing that can aggravate your rotator cuff can incite tennis elbow,” he said.

Tennis elbow is a common ailment for people who get back into the sport after a long break. Their swing timing is off, Dr. Ochiai said, and they start snapping their wrist. The tendons in the elbow bear the force of some of that snapping because they’re connected to the forearm muscle that connects to the wrist.

These types of injuries are notorious for not showing up until after your workout.

“With tennis elbow, you don’t notice it while you’re playing, but after the match or practice session,” Dr. Ochiai said.

And just like the rotator cuff, elbow tendons can become injured from basic everyday movements like shaking a hand or lifting up a gallon of milk.

  • Famous athletes with tennis/golfers elbow: Not many tennis players, because they have excellent form and the condition plagues players with bad form.
  • Sports where the injury is common: tennis, golf.
  • How you know you hurt it: pain on the outside or inside of the elbow after physical activity.
  • Dr. Ochiai’s suggestion for prevention: Tennis players should practice good form to take pressure off the elbow.

The Legs: Where You’ll Most Likely Get Hurt

The legs are long, complex and full of tendons, ligaments and muscles. With all that material packed into one limb, there are bound to be all kinds of injuries. The knees, ankles and feet are the sites of common injuries.

Torn ACL

If you could see into your knee, you’d find a tendon running across the back, which connections the top and bottom of the joint. This tendon plays an important part in keeping your knee stable.

The most common injury with this ligament is a complete tear, and you usually see it happening when there is a sudden change in direction for the knee or an impact against the knee. The second cause explains why this injury is common in football players.

  • Famous athletes with ACL tears: Tom Brady, NFL (2008); Derrick Rose, NBA (2012).
  • Sport where the injury is common: soccer, basketball, football and tennis.
  • How you know you’ve hurt it: knee swells to two to three times normal size, severe pain.

Runner’s Knee

The technical term for runner’s knee is “patellafemoral pain syndrome”, which is a fancy way of saying you’ve got pain in the tendon that connects your knee cap to your quadriceps.

Dr. Matt Tanneberg, a sports chiropractor and certified strength and condition specialist with Arcadia Chiropractic in Phoenix, says this injury is a classic example of overuse.

Runners expose their knees to constant pounding, resulting in some irritation in the tendons that keep the patella in place. The pain is dull, and it tends to pop up when you’re going up or down stairs and squatting.

Dr. Tanneberg suggests using a compression sleeve to ease the pain.

“Compression is the best thing you can do for runner’s knee as it will take the pressure off the tendon that is supporting your knee,” he says.

  • Famous athletes with runner’s knee: Andre Igoudala, NBA (2011); Chase Utley, MLB (2011).
  • Sports where the injury is common: Anything requiring a lot of running.
  • How you know you’ve hurt it: Dull ache at the base of your quad muscle.
  • Dr. Tanneberg’s suggestion for prevention: Compression sleeve or kinesiology tape.

Sprained Ankle

Perhaps the king of all sports injuries, the sprained ankle can happen in just about any sport where you’re cutting, jumping or shifting positions on a regular basis.

Though it’s a common injury, people have a hard time understanding what a “sprain” is and how it’s different than a strain:

  • Sprain: stretching or tearing of ligaments.
  • Strain: stretching or tearing of muscles or tendons.

Sprains are measured in grades, Dr. Tanneberg says. A grade one sprain has minor tearing/stretching, a grade two has major tearing/stretching but the ligament is still intact and a grade three tear is a complete tear of the ligament.

The most common type of ankle sprain is the inversion, where the outside gets stretched out and your instep points upwards at the time of injury. Eversion is the opposite; the inside of the ankle is sprained.

  • Famous athletes with ankle sprains: Steph Curry, NBA (multiple years); Neymar, Spanish Primera Division (multiple years).
  • Sports where the injury is common: Basketball, soccer, volleyball.
  • How you know you’ve hurt it: Sharp pain and quick swelling.
  • Men’s Journal suggestion for prevention: A series of four exercises three times a week.

Plantar Fasciitis

The bottom of your foot (and other parts of your body) has a layer of web-like “fascia” protecting soft tissue.

“Plantar fasciitis means the inflammation in the fascia on the bottom of your foot,” Dr. Tanneberg says. “Usually, the pain with this condition happens immediately in the morning.”

According to Mayo Clinic, a sure sign of plantar fasciitis is a stabbing pain on the bottom of your foot near the heel. The cause can be overuse resulting from a variety of factors including obesity, age and jobs that keep you on your feet all day.

  • Famous athletes with ankle sprains: Albert Pujols, MLB (2013); Antonio Gates, NFL (2011).
  • Sports where the injury is common: Long-distance running, dance, football.
  • How you know you’ve hurt it: Sharp pain on bottom of foot near heel, usually in the morning.
  • Mayo Clinic’s suggestion for prevention: healthy weight, supportive shoes and switching out shoes when they get too old.

When Injuries Happen: Tough It Out or Head to the Doctor?

In the heat of competition, it can be hard to stick yourself on the bench or sidelines when you’ve hurt yourself. Competition has a way of bringing out the best in us, but it can also push us to do things we normally wouldn’t.

If we hurt something at work, there’s a good chance we’d take the rest of the day off and rest. But there’s something about being in a game or race (no matter how meaningful or meaningless) that makes us skip over common sense.

Dr. Chantel Gorton says knowing when to keep playing or working out and when to stop is pretty simple. You should call it a day if: 

  • You’ve hurt your leg and you can’t bear weight on it for more than four steps.
  • If you can’t walk on your leg injury at all.
  • If you cannot hop on one leg.
  • If you have excessive swelling in the injured area.
  • If you can’t move the joint through its full range of motion.

If you fall into any of these categories, set up an appointment with your doctor. If the pain is too great to wait for a visit, Dr. Gorton recommends you head to an urgent care center.

What to Do When You Hear Something Pop

Another thing we discussed with Dr. Gorton and Dr. Ochiai is what to do when you hear something pop.

“It depends on when you hear a pop,” Dr. Ochiai said.

Sometimes joints can pop as they move, but you should be wary of any pops while you are playing sports, particularly when you’re sprinting. If you hear a pop, use Dr. Gorton’s guidelines: not being able to move the joint as you normally would or not being able to walk four steps are signs there could be some significant damage. 

In the days following your “pop”, bruising and swelling will be indications there was some tearing.

What You Can Do to Prevent Injuries: Stretching and Workouts

After I had my unfortunate injury during my softball game, I told my wife it probably happened because I didn’t stretch out before the game.

To get an idea of how stretching reduces the chance of muscle pulls and injuries, I asked Dr. Gorton for her thoughts.

“Stretching has notoriously been an exercise we’ve been told is helpful, but we don’t have a lot of evidence of why that is,” she says. “We’re more likely to be injured when we do too much, too fast or because we don’t have the muscle strength and stability to handle it.”

That’s right; stretching could be a lot less important than you think.

“It’s unfortunate that most of us think that we get injured because we didn’t stretch,” Dr. Gorton says. “It’s because you’ve been sitting around for years and you’re not 18. But even of those who know better get hurt all the time.”

Dr. Gorton’s claim is pretty strong, but it’s one that Dr. Ochiai agreed with. Also, there’ve been many articles written about the possible ineffectiveness of stretching, including a 2013 article by TIME magazine.

The key to cutting down on injury risk, both doctors said, is doing exercises that get your body warmed up – jumping jacks are a good example. Dr. Gorton suggests a variety of plyometric exercises, which are a series of motions that get your whole body going and not just one muscle group.

“Do plyometrics and running to warm up,” she said. “Do some skipping, side-to-side shuffling, and other movements that warm you up and move you through your range of motion. It will get your blood flowing and make your nerves happy.” has a great list of six plyometric exercises that can help you get warmed up for working out or playing sports.

The Big Picture on Common Sports Injuries: Getting Results on the Field Means Putting in the Work Off the Field

Sports injuries are as common as sports themselves. It’s safe to say that there’s someone pulling a muscle, rolling an ankle, or walking around with knee pain somewhere in the world right now.

A lot of these injuries happen through repetitive motions like a golf swing or tennis stroke, but some of them, like torn ACL’s and sprained ankles, happen when there’s too much force put on the ligaments and tendons in a joint.

If you can’t put weight on a hurt leg or move your joint through its full motion, it’s probably time to take yourself out of the competition and go see your doctor. Swelling and bruising are sure signs that something is wrong.

» Related: Is CrossFit Safe? Experts’ Opinions on the Dangers of CrossFit and HIIT Workouts

While most of us believe that stretching is what prevents injuries, it’s the full body warm-ups you do that will get your muscles ready for quick starts and stops, sharp movements and other sports-related activities.

But even when you do all those things, you can still get hurt. Why? Because having a positive experience on the playing field, court, golf course or pool has more to do with what you’re accomplishing outside your sport:

  • Are you walking or running on a regular basis?
  • Do you do cardio workouts at your gym?
  • How often do you lift weights to keep your muscles toned and used to bearing load?

Dr. Ochiai put it well when he said most of us play sports to stay fit, but we should actually stay fit so we can play sports:

“If you really want to be super competitive, you have to realize super competitive athletes are not just super competitive in the actual sport, they’re super competitive in the work they put in outside the sport. If you want to excel, you have to put in the time cross-training.”

Wrapping It Up: Time Is Not On Your Side

Ever wonder why you get more strains and sprains as you get older? It’s not an illusion; your muscle cells are actually dying.

You are born with all the muscles cells you’ll ever have in your life, Dr. Gorton points out. Over time, those cells grow and get bigger to accommodate your larger frame. But, at around 25 years old, those cells start to die.

The lesson? You’ve got to keep your body in shape as you grow older. If you don’t, your muscles, tendons and ligaments will be more prone to injury. And when those injuries happen, Dr. Gorton says, it takes longer for you to recover.

So, if you’re a weekend warrior who loves the occasional softball, basketball or hockey league, a quick stretch or job isn’t going to save you from injuries. They’ll help in getting your muscles ready to compete, but if those muscles aren’t used to intense exercise – or any exercise – things will probably go wrong.

Our suggestion? Join a gym or start walking; both give you the chance to be active in a controlled environment where your body gets a good workout and your muscles will start to get used to regular exercise. Work your way up to running on a treadmill or down your street.

As you strengthen your legs and arms, you’ll be more prepared to compete and, most likely, you’ll reduce the chances of injuries.

J.R. Duren

J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter who examines credit cards, credit scores, and various bank products. J.R. is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and his insight has been featured on Investopedia, GOBankingRates, H&R Block and Huffington Post.