Overuse injuries are usually the last thing people think about until they happen.
Instead, most of us are more concerned with an injury caused by an accident, like rolling an ankle, taking a fall and spraining a wrist, or lifting something too heavy and pulling a muscle.
We are quick to forget that repetitive movements we perform every day while playing sports, athletic training, work, or basic life activities can lead to overuse injuries when we push too hard or simply do the same movements over and over.
Being able to recognize the signs and symptoms of overuse injuries is important for avoiding them as much as possible, and if they do occur, knowing the most effective treatment approaches for healing.
What is an Overuse Injury?
Overuse injuries, according to the Mayo Clinic, are usually caused by repeated strain on a particular area and typically occur in soft tissue areas like muscles, tendons and ligaments, or in the joints.
Most of the time an overuse injury develops gradually over time rather than in a single moment like other injuries.
One of the key causes of overuse injuries is taking on too much too soon. This can happen when an athlete begins a workout at full speed before his or her body is ready, or even more common when a person pushes too hard for a long period of time without proper rest.
Both of these occurrences can lead to overtraining syndrome, which taxes the body and leaves people vulnerable to overuse injuries.
Another cause of an overuse injury is using poor technique that places repeated stress on a particular joint, causing inflammation or micro-tears in the soft tissue that add up over time.
In both cases, overuse injuries can sideline a person, leading to diminished range of motion, pain and discomfort, and significant downtime while they attempt to recover.
Signs of a Developing Overuse Injury
Overuse injures can be difficult to recognize in the very early stages. Poor technique or overtraining may simply result in a twitchy or overly sore muscle, but not something a person might perceive as an injury.
It’s incredibly important to pay attention the body, especially after physical activity, because this is the time to notice the signs of developing an overuse injury.
Early signs of an overuse injury can include some of the following:
- Pain or discomfort despite the fact that there was no apparent injury to the muscle or joint
- The gradual increase of pain in a muscle or joint, that started as minor, but has steadily increased and caused impairment
- Aches and pains that persist longer than normal after physical activity can be signs of tendonitis or a stress fracture caused by repetitive moments
- Persistent pain, even after a period of rest, can be a sign that a particular muscle or joint has developed an overuse injury and needs treatment
Most Common Overuse Injuries
Anyone, at any age, can develop an overuse injury. They are often sports-related because of the repetitive nature of activities like running, throwing, swinging, jumping, lifting, and swimming.
However, they can be work-related in fields like manufacturing, construction, or any job that requires repetitive physical movements.
Here are 11 of the most common overuse injuries:
Runner’s Knee is sometimes referred to as patellofemoral pain syndrome, and is a knee overuse injury caused by repeated stress on the knee related to running. But other movements like squatting, jumping, or weightlifting can also lead to this injury.
Runners knee starts with a dull ache or pain around the front of the knee on the patella, where the patellofemoral joint connects with the lower end of the thighbone or femur. As it worsens, physical activity will become increasingly difficult.
The largest tendon in the body, the Achilles, runs down the back of the calf and connects to the heel bone. It provides support during activities such as running, jumping, climbing, and of course, walking.
With overuse, the Achilles can become inflamed and cause swelling, intense pain, a more prominent heel bone, and diminished range of motion. When this happens it may lead to a condition known as insertional achilles tendonitis.
IT Band Syndrome
The Illiotibial Band runs along the outside of the leg, starting at the hip and moving down to the knee and shinbone. It provides support in all types of movements, including the rotation of the hips, knee stability, and protecting the outer thigh area.
When this long stretch of connective tissue gets bunched up, torn, tight or inflamed, most people experience pain on the outside of the knee and, in some cases, in the hip known as IT Band Syndrome.
Medically referred to as Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome or Anterior Tibial Stress Syndrome, shin splints symptoms gradually develop from repeated stress placed on the shinbone that cause the surrounding muscle and soft-tissue to become inflamed.
Pain might be mild at first and even subside as a person’s body warms up with activity. This is one of the reasons people tend to ignore shin splint overuse injuries until the pain becomes persistent and decreases their performance abilities.
The plantar fascia is a long slender ligament that runs along the bottom of the foot, connecting the heel to the front of the foot and supporting the arch of the foot.
Pain in the plantar fascia can have many causes, such as high arches, flat feet, a tight Achilles tendon, or tight heel and calf muscles. With this overuse injury, most people feel pain in the heel and on the bottom of the foot.
Technically known as patellar tendonitis, a jumper’s knee injury is the result of inflammation of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shinbone.
While anyone can develop this form of knee overuse injury, it’s referred to as Jumper’s Knee because of how common it is in sports, like basketball, volleyball, soccer, and track and field that involve jumping movements.
Lateral Epicondylitis is the technical term for tennis elbow symptoms resulting in inflammation and soreness of the tendon that connects the outside of the elbow to the forearm muscles.
People who regularly enjoy racquet sports are vulnerable to this overuse injury, but so are people who repeatedly grip objects while engaging their finger and wrists, whether in a sports or work setting.
Golfer’s Elbow is inflammation and soreness where the forearm tendons and muscles attach to the bone, causing inner elbow discomfort, with pain sometimes radiating the forearm and into the wrist.
Though it’s medically referred to as Medial Epicondylitis, golfer’s elbow can develop for anyone who engages their wrists and fingers as they repeatedly clench an object. Proper golfers elbow treatment methods can help heal these types of overuse elbow injuries more quickly.
Pitcher’s Elbow is typically caused by repeated overuse and stress on the elbow joint that leads to inflammation and pain on the inside of the elbow, especially when straightening the arm.
While it’s common in sports like baseball where there’s a lot of throwing motions, pitchers elbow can also develop in other sports and from movements that require heavy lifting or motions that place repeated stress on the elbow.
Rotator Cuff Tendonitis
The rotator cuff is a group of muscles and tendons that connect the upper arm bone the shoulder blade, and the collarbone, which allows for raising the arm. An overuse shoulder injury in the rotator cuff and supraspinatus tendon can lead to significant pain and impairment.
When this happens it affects any movement that involves raising the arms, like combing their hair, putting on a t-shirt, or sports-related movements like shooting a basket in basketball or serving the ball in tennis.
Stress fractures are small cracks that develop in the bone, usually those that bear portions of the body’s weight, especially during physical activity.
Stress fracture symptoms can include pain, swelling, bruising, and significant loss of strength and range of motion. It’s important to seek treatment for stress fractures because they can worsen with continued activity.
Treatment for Overuse Injuries
It’s important to listen to the body and see a doctor when pain in any area of the body persists outside of what seems like a healthy timeframe.
Diagnosing overuse injuries generally involves a physical examination, a discussion about recent activity and x-rays or an MRI to get a visual assessment of the soft-tissue, joints, and bones.
Treatment approaches for many injuries are likely to be more conservative at first.
Effective Treatment for Overuse Injuries includes:
1. RICE Method
The RICE Method is a common way to heal a variety of injuries caused by overuse.
RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. This approach entails resting and icing the injured area to help reduce inflammation, swelling, and pain.
Apply some form of compression to the injury and elevate it above the heart to further reduce swelling and pain.
2. Anti-Inflammatory Medications
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can be purchased without a prescription and should be used as directed to reduce pain and inflammation while resting the injury.
3. Physical Therapy
Physical Therapy can be helpful for many types of injuries during recovery. This may include stretches or exercises to heal the injury, as well as teaching proper techniques for avoiding further injury.
Physical therapists may provide training routines to strengthen muscles, advise about proper shoes or workout attire, and effective ways to recover.
4. EPAT / Shockwave Therapy for Overuse Injuries
EPAT Therapy is a pain-free, non-invasive therapeutic method of treating and healing various types of overuse injuries and is used by many sports medicine doctors, as well as college and professional teams.
It is sometimes called Extracorporeal Shock Wave Therapy because it uses impulse pressure waves, known as shockwaves for treating and healing injuries.
A Shockwave Therapy Machine delivers pressure waves focused on the area of the pain that is caused by injured or damaged soft-tissue.
EPAT / Shockwave treatment works by increasing blood flow, decreasing inflammation, creating new blood vessels, and speeding up healing and recovery.
It can be administered during the resting stage of recovery, in conjunction with physical therapy, or even while a person is still continuing regular activities.
5. Taping and Bracing
KT Tape, athletic wraps, and braces can stabilize overuse injuries so they heal more quickly and avert further damage to joints and soft tissue until everything returns to normal. In many cases, they can be used after recovery to prevent injuries from occurring again.
6. Return Gradually to Previous Activities
As difficult as it may be for some people, it’s important to make a gradual return to training or working out after recovery. Many people have an impulse to rush back to the same workout intensity before an overuse injury happened.
But it’s crucial to take it slow for at least a couple of weeks. In severe cases of overuse injuries, being cleared medically by a doctor or sports physician may also be necessary.
Surgery is usually a last resort only after conservative treatment methods have failed to work. Even though some types of surgery are minor, they are still considered invasive procedures that often require prolonged downtime and recovery.
Anyone who works in a physically demanding occupation, plays competitive sports, or is very active athletically may experience some type of overuse injuries in their lifetime.
Recognizing the early signs of pain can signal it’s either time to take a break and rest, or see a doctor to rule out something more serious.
If an injury does occur, utilizing the treatment methods outlined here should promote faster healing and recovery to minimize downtime.