4 Simple Ways to Avoid Overuse Injuries

Jeanine Barone | July 19, 2017

Reviewed by John Edward Swartzberg, M.D.

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What to know

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Although a weekend athlete can experience overuse injuries, they are far more common among people who do the same exercise repeatedly or often. And it’s happening more often to aging baby boomers. Also known as chronic or stress injuries, overuse injuries are brought on gradually by wear and tear from a repetitive activity such as cycling, running, or hitting a tennis ball. The result: microscopic trauma to muscle, bone, tendon, or ligament, which in turn leads to inflammation or tissue damage.

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Who’s at risk

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Two common injuries are tendinitis and stress fractures. People who exercise regularly are especially at risk for tendinitis because of the strong forces produced by their well-conditioned muscles. Stress fractures are microscopic breaks in bone, usually in the foot, shin, or thigh. Common among long-distance runners and basketball players, the fractures are brought on by the repeated impact of running or jumping.

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Tendinitis trouble

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Tendinitis is deceptive: The pain can be severe when you start exercising, then diminish as you continue — only to return sharply once you’ve stopped. Perhaps the most common form of tendinitis is tennis elbow, which affects not only tennis players but also rowers, carpenters, gardeners, and anyone else who repeatedly bends his or her arm forcefully.

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Where else it can occur

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In sports and activities that involve running and jumping, tendinitis is most likely to develop in the knee, foot, and the Achilles tendon at the back of the ankle. For cyclists, knees are most vulnerable. Shoulder tendinitis (involving the rotator cuff tendons) can develop from pitching a ball, swinging a golf club, or raising the arms in an overhead motion when playing tennis or swimming.

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Stress fractures

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Often the pain of a stress fracture is mild, occurring during or right after exercising. Continuing to exercise makes it worse, but for the first few weeks, such fractures are usually too small to be detected, even by X-ray. Fortunately, the fractures rarely break through the bone, so they don’t require splints or casts to heal, only rest. To minimize impact, run and jump on soft surfaces. Following are four tips to prevent overuse injuries, whether from tendinitis or stress fractures.

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1. Don’t push yourself

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Working out too hard, too long, or too often is probably the leading cause of sports injury. This can especially be a problem as you age because joints and muscles become less flexible and more vulnerable. Working out more than four times a week in a high-impact activity like running increases the risk greatly.

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2. Switch it up

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No matter how much you like running or cycling, it’s a good idea to change up your routine to avoid overuse injuries. Problems can arise from favoring one sport; this is likely to strengthen certain muscles at the expense of others, leaving tendons and ligaments unbalanced and thus vulnerable. Balance your workouts to include cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises. Instead of running every day, for instance, do low-impact activities, such as swimming on alternate days.

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3. Wear the right shoes or equipment

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Wearing improper or worn-out shoes places added stress on your hips, knees, ankles, and feet — the sites of up to 90 percent of all sports injuries. Running shoes, for example, offer virtually no protection from the sideways motion typical of aerobic dance, basketball, and racquet sports.

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4. Listen to your body

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Forget about “no pain, no gain.” If you feel pain beyond mild discomfort, stop exercising. Ice the painful area as soon as you can. Learn to monitor your body for abnormal sensations. If you get injured, wait it out. Make sure you’ve healed adequately before you start your activities again. Physical therapy can be effective in speeding your recovery.

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