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Acute vs. Chronic Sports Injuries

Summit upper extremity surgeon J.P. Delaney, M.D., explains the difference between acute and chronic sports injuries.

You may have heard the terms acute sports injury and chronic sports injury. But what is the difference between acute vs chronic sports injuries?

What is an acute sports injury?

Acute injuries happen in a single moment. In sports, they could be the result of a collision, abnormal twisting, landing wrong after a jump, or some other kind of traumatic injury. “Bone breaks, ligament tears, and tendon ruptures are the three most common kinds of acute sports injury,” said Summit sports medicine surgeon J.P. Delaney, M.D.

In short, when you experience an acute injury during sports, you’ll know it. You may hear a “pop” or feel a tearing sensation, and it will generally be painful, with swelling, bruising, or deformity after the injury.

How do you diagnose and treat an acute sports injury?

Acute injuries should get evaluated urgently, within a week if not on the day of injury itself. Treatment depends on the severity of the injury, but getting an X-ray and an evaluation right away is always a good idea. When the injury is acute, it’s important to get it treated quickly to make sure it heals properly.

“If surgery is needed, we should do it quickly, so the bones and ligaments can be lined up right away,” Dr. Delaney said. That gives the athlete the best chance of getting back to sports as soon as possible. Planning for a return to sports should be part of an athlete’s discussion with a sports medicine provider after an acute injury.

What about chronic sports injuries?

Many active and athletic people can relate to a long-term, nagging soreness or stiffness in the body whether it’s a baseball pitcher’s aching shoulder or a runner’s sore knees. These are the kinds of symptoms associated with chronic sports injuries.

Chronic injuries happen over time, generally with overuse. They happen when a joint, tendon, or other structure wears out over time. Examples include tendinitis and rotator cuff injuries with microtears that build up over years.

In sports, loading a joint or other structure the wrong way or with too much force for too long can lead to that structure getting too thin and eventually giving out. Our bodies are designed to withstand force, but if an athlete goes above and beyond that force threshold repetitively, it can set the stage for a chronic sports injury.

“In other cases, an athlete may have had an acute injury, but if the athlete didn’t get it properly treated, that tissue can wear down over time,” Dr. Delaney said. “Sometimes we can repair it, but other times we have to do more reconstructive surgical procedures to address the issue.”

How are chronic sports injuries treated?

For chronic injuries, time is less of a component, because the injury is long term. “With a chronic injury, we can try nonoperative treatments like physical therapy, RICE, and anti-inflammatories. We have some time to figure it out,” Dr. Delaney said.

Even if surgery is recommended, it doesn’t have to happen right away. “We can make sure everything is optimized, and make sure we know exactly what is causing the pain before we operate,” Dr. Delaney said.

Summit Orthopedics is your trusted sports medicine partner.

Summit Orthopedics delivers expert care by fellowship-trained sports medicine physicians to get you back in the game as quickly and safely as possible. Find your sports medicine expert, schedule an appointment online, or call us at (651) 968–5201 to schedule a sports medicine consultation.

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