Whether you’re playing elite or recreational sport, the majority of athletes experience an injury at some point in time. So, when is it okay to return to sport after an injury?
Often sport injuries are rehabbed too quickly which can lead to recurrence and/or further aggravation. Generally, this can and should be avoidable with an appropriate rehabilitation program. Sometimes there can be pressure to return quickly from an injury, however properly rehabbing an injury is always in your and your team's best interest.
Healing of soft tissue (muscles, ligaments and tendons) takes place in stages, and depending on the severity of your injury, the timeline of each stage does change. The healing stages and timelines vary depending on what literature you read, however the general stages of healing are:
Inflammation stage (first few days post injury): Chemicals are sent to clot bleeding and remove damaged cells. Eventually new blood vessels form to ensure blood flow is appropriate for the healing process.
Proliferation stage (day 3 to 4-6 weeks post injury): Your body is now trying to mend the area of damage. Collagen is laid down to start mending the injury; an initial layer to close the wound, and a second stronger, more permanent layer after that.
Remodelling stage (from weeks 4-6 to 1-2 years after the injury): The strength of the new tissue gradually becomes stronger, and the blood vessels which were required to heal your injury initially are slowly removed.
Initial treatment of injuries are generally managed appropriately. It’s towards the middle of the proliferation stage where people can run into issues. At that 3-4 week mark after an injury, swelling will likely have reduced and you may be walking or running pain free, and herein lies the problem. People generally expect there to be a direct correlation between pain reduction and injury healing. You have no pain and can run without any difficulty, so the injury must be healed, right? Unfortunately, not quite. The body’s healing process is a little more complicated than that, and although you may be feeling great, the structures healing your injury may still be quite weak. It is at this time when people often re-injure themselves by returning to full competition too early.
We’re not saying that you should not be running or training during the proliferation/remodelling stages, however your training should be an individualised return-to-sport rehabilitation program designed by a physiotherapist or health professional. This rehab program should be a graded exercise program that slowly introduces sport-specific activities/movements. Finally, before you return to competition level sport, you should undergo a return-to-sport assessment involving evaluation of sport-specific tasks; eventually at full speed and intensity.
If you do have the misfortune of a sporting injury, do yourself a favour and rehab it correctly. Physiotherapists at Moreton All Body Care can assess the extent of your injury, discuss with you the rehabilitation timeframe, and guide you through a program to ensure that it doesn’t become a recurring problem.