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Sports Injury Recovery A Step By Step Process

Follow Advice from Medical Doctor or Physical Therapist

Youth sports injuries are almost inevitable. But how long recovery from injury will take depends on proper sports injury management and rehabilitation.

Acute youth sports injuries, such as a sprained ankle, or moderate to severe strain, should be seen by your child's primary care physician, who can help you decide if a referral to a sports injury specialist, such as an orthopedist, is required.

Seven-Step Process

If the doctor advises your child to stay out of sports for a period of time, here are the six steps that experts say your child should complete in rehabilitation and treatment of the injury before returning to play.

  1. Allow healing. While your child is bruised and sore, and perhaps on crutches or in a cast or splint, he probably will not be tempted to begin exercising the part of his body that is still hurting. If he insists on exercising to stay in shape while the injury heals, make sure he checks with his doctor first to make sure it is an activity, like swimming, that doesn't put stress on the injured area. Sometimes the doctor really wants a kid to do nothing. And even if she approves the exercise, she may want the child to work with a trainer to rehab the non-injured body correctly. This is also a time when you will want to make sure your child eats right.
  2. Restore full range of motion and function in the injured area. Your child should be doing the exercises his doctor or physical therapist has prescribed to restore range of motion (if he does not, he may never get the range of motion back!). Using ankles as example, if your child can move the injured ankle in the same way and as far as his good ankle, he is ready to move on to the next step in the recovery process. A rule to follow: no return to sports if there is any limited motion in a joint.
  3. Regain normal gait. After a leg injury, many athletes find that they have lost their usual gait (the way the normally walk). When your child appears to you to be walking and jogging normally, she is ready for the next step in coming back from her injury. No child should be allowed to return to sports if he is still limping.
  4. Regain muscle strength. After an injury that has kept your child from exercising for any length of time, he needs to build back the strength in muscles that have been resting. His doctor or trainer should give him weight-training exercises to build up the weakened muscles. A good program: have your child do 3 sets of 10 repetitions ("reps") 3 times a week. In other words, she should lift a weight (preferably a light one) ten times in a row, stop and, when rested, lift the weight ten times twice more.

    Here's a tip: You don't have to buy special weights. Anything that weighs a couple of pounds (a large can of vegetables, for instance), can serve as the weight. For leg lifts, put the can into one of your old purses, and hang the purse around your child's ankle and have him do reps while sitting in a tall chair or on the kitchen counter.

  5. Regain endurance. Fortunately, most healthy athletes, especially kids, regain their endurance pretty quickly, but your child won't be really ready to play again until he does. It's important that, in building endurance, your child doesn't stress his system. He should activities like swimming, running in the water, biking or rowing. Working out three times a week for 30 minutes each time should be enough.
  6. Regain skills. If your child has been away from her sport for any length of time, her skills (whether it be dribbling and shooting a basketball, hitting a softball, or kicking a soccer ball) won't be as sharp as they were before the injury. She should work in regaining her skills before playing in competition.
  7. Regain confidence.  When a child suffers an injury that keeps him out of sports for an extended period of time, he suffers a psychological loss as well as physical injury. It is therefore important for him to not only be physically ready to return to sports but psychologically ready as well. If she returns too soon, she risks re-injury, injury to a different part of the body, depression, and/or decreased performance.[1,2]

Because kids are usually eager to return to play and don't have the discipline to take these steps on their own, and because parents don't have the experience to know when it is safe for their child to progress to the next step, consulting with an athletic trainer (AT) and/or physical therapist at each step along the way is advised. All take time, patience and your encouragement. Skip any of these six steps, or do them out of order, and your child will risk re-injury and his road to complete recovery will probably be longer.

1. Ardern CL, Taylor NF, Feller JA, Webster KE.  A systematic review of the psychological factors associated with returning to sport following injury.  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1120-1126. 

2.  Ardern CL, Taylor NF, Feller JA, Webster KE.  A systematic review of the psychological factors associated with returning to sport following injury.  Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1120-1126. 

Revised April 12, 2015