The benefits of sports and exercise far outweigh the risks, but occasionally injuries do happen.
What causes sports injuries
Sports injuries can be caused by:
- an accident – such as a fall or heavy blow
- not warming up properly before exercising
- using inappropriate equipment or poor technique
- pushing yourself too hard
Almost any part of the body can be injured, including the muscles, bones, joints and connective tissues (tendons and ligaments). The ankles and knees are particularly prone to injury.
What to do if you have an injury
If you've injured yourself, you may have immediate pain, tenderness, swelling, bruising, and restricted movement or stiffness in the affected area. Sometimes, these symptoms may only be noticeable several hours after exercising or playing sports.
Stop exercising if you feel pain, regardless of whether your injury happened suddenly or you’ve had the pain for a while. Continuing to exercise while injured may cause further damage and slow your recovery.
If you have a minor injury, you do not usually need to see a doctor and can look after yourself at home. However, you may want to visit a GP, local minor injuries unit or NHS walk-in centre for advice if your symptoms do not get better over time. Find your nearest walk-in centre or minor injuries unit.
If you have a severe injury, such as a broken bone, dislocation or severe head injury, go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department as soon as possible.
Treating a sports injury
You can usually treat common minor injuries yourself by:
- resting the affected part of the body for the first 48 to 72 hours to prevent further damage
- regularly applying an ice pack to the affected area during the first 48 to 72 hours to reduce swelling
- using painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to relieve pain
If your symptoms are severe or do not improve within a few days or weeks, a GP may be able to refer you for specialist treatment and support, such as physiotherapy.
Waiting lists for NHS treatment can be long and some people choose to pay for private treatment. Most private physiotherapists accept direct self-referrals.
Read more about accessing physiotherapy.
Serious injuries will occasionally require a procedure or operation to align misplaced bones, fix broken bones, or repair torn ligaments.
Depending on the type of injury, it can take a few weeks or months to make a full recovery. While recovering, it's important not to do too much too soon – aim to increase your level of activity gradually over time.
Preventing sports injuries
You can reduce your risk of getting injured by:
- warming up properly before exercise – read more about how to warm up before exercise and how to stretch after exercising
- not pushing your body beyond your current fitness level
- using the right equipment – for example, wearing running shoes for running, shin guards for football, and a gum shield for rugby
- receiving coaching to learn correct techniques
When starting a new sport or activity, get advice and training from a qualified fitness trainer or sports coach.
Page last reviewed: 31 March 2020
Next review due: 31 March 2023