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Understanding 8 Common Football Injuries

January 05, 2024

Football season brings with it a host of injuries that force players to miss time on the field. Postgame reports and follow-up news coverage bombards fans with phrases and terms like “turf toe” and “hip pointer” that often leave much to the imagination.

The sport puts enormous pressure on the human body, with a combination of full-speed collisions, unexpected changes of direction and rapid acceleration/deceleration. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the more common injuries afflicting high school, college and professional football players.

Turf toe: This is essentially a sprain of the main joint of the big toe. Imagine having your big toe planted on the ground and then leaning the rest of your foot forward, hyperextending the joint until the ligaments are painfully stretched or torn. Turf toe is graded from 1 to 3, with the latter being completely torn – causing severe pain and difficulty moving the big toe.

The injury can be found with other sports, but its name came about after artificial turf started becoming more common. Recovery times can vary widely, based on the severity of the injury and the athlete’s ability to push through the pain.

High-ankle sprain: Ankle sprains are divided into two categories – low (or common) and high.  Most ankle sprains occur when the lower portion of the ankle rolls inward. High ankle sprains can occur with the sudden outward rotation of the ankle, which can damage the ligament that supports the two long bones (tibia and fibula) in your lower leg. 

High ankle sprains can take significantly longer to heal when compared to the more common ankle sprains. Often, the athlete will wear a protective boot for stability during the healing process, which can take weeks or even months, in severe cases.

ACL/MCL tear: Injured knees are among the most feared injuries for athletes. The knee is stabilized by four ligaments: the ACL, PCL, MCL and LCL. The two most injured ligaments are the ACL and the MCL. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) runs down the center of your knee, connecting your upper (femur) and lower (tibia) leg bones. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is on the inner side of your knee, where it keeps your knee from bending too far inward. Damage can occur if either of those ligaments is stressed or stretched beyond its natural limits.

ACL tears can result from a sudden stop or pivot, often without any contact. MCL tears are more likely to happen when the knee is forced too far inward (while being tackled, for example). ACL injuries often require surgery (and longer recovery times), while MCL tears are more likely to require rest and rehabilitation.

Hamstring strain: This is damage to muscles or tendons that run along the back of the thigh. Hamstring strains are more likely to occur in an athlete who performs an explosive movement such as sprinting. It can also happen to kickers who haven’t warmed up adequately before attempting a kick. In both cases, a tendon or muscle becomes overstretched or even torn.

Hamstring strains tend to heal on their own, though injections or surgery may be needed in some cases. Recovery times vary, based on the severity of the strain.

Stinger: A stinger or brachial plexus injury involves the bundle of nerves that start in the spinal cord and run through the neck, shoulders and arms. Also called a burner, the injury occurs when those nerves are forcibly stretched, which causes numbness, tingling and pain down the arm.

Stinger symptoms usually resolve within a few minutes, though in extreme cases they can linger for days or weeks.

Hip pointer: A hip pointer is a bruise on the ridge (iliac crest) of the hip bone, an area of the body that doesn’t have much padding between bone and skin. The injury can be caused by falls or getting hit by a helmet, resulting in intense pain. In severe cases, it may be difficult to walk.

Hip pointers are treated with rest and therapy, typically over a one- to three-week period.

Concussion: It is difficult to talk about football injuries without mentioning concussions. These mild traumatic brain injuries happen with direct blows to the head or when the head is whipped back and forth. Damage is caused when the brain shifts around inside the skull.

Concussion treatment has been evolving in recent years as more attention has been paid to the potential long-term effects of repeated concussions. Athletes who suffer blows to the head are quickly evaluated on the sidelines before being cleared for return. Concussed athletes work through a multistep “return-to-play” protocol before being allowed to resume playing. Recovery can vary widely, based on how each athlete’s brain heals.

Separated shoulder: This injury involves the AC joint (acromioclavicular joint), which is the point where the collarbone (clavicle) meets the highest portion of the shoulder blade (acromion).  There are ligaments connecting and stabilizing those two bones. A separated shoulder can occur when a player lands awkwardly on the shoulder, particularly if another player lands on top of them during a tackle. The injury can cause extreme pain and make it difficult, if not impossible, to use that shoulder.

In mild cases, the athlete may recover within a few days. But in more extreme cases, recovery may take weeks or months and could require surgery.

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