Soccer Sprains & Strains

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Running, stopping quickly, and changing direction on a dime are all part of the game. Unfortunately, that hustle can cause some of the most typical soccer injuries — so warm up routinely, and take post-game pain seriously.

Soccer is one of the most popular sports in the world and the fastest-growing team sport in the United States. With this enthusiasm comes a need for health awareness. Soccer is a strenuous sport requiring stopping and starting, tremendous endurance and inevitable physical contact, each presenting the potential for injury.

A typical soccer game requires players to run nearly non-stop for 45 minutes per half. This constant starting and stopping momentum can be damaging to a player’s joints and muscles. “Running is already tough on the joints. Add to that the starting and stopping motion in soccer, and players can find themselves in trouble,” said Dr. Peter J. Symbas, orthopedic surgeon at OrthoAtlanta, and Chief Medical Officer for the Atlanta United FC, Atlanta’s new Major League Soccer (MLS) team. A former collegiate soccer player himself, Dr. Symbas explains, “It’s the sudden movement from full stop to full run that can cause players the most damage and injury.”

Accidental collisions are another possible source of injury during soccer. These collisions can be responsible for torn ligaments, sprains, and joint damage. Injury to the lower extremities is the most common soccer injury, with sprains and strains among the top reported knee and leg injuries. These injuries may be acute, that is, traumatic damage resulting from a sudden force or impact, and typically cause noticeable symptoms. Others are chronic, overuse injuries, often caused by repeated stress on the muscles, joints, and soft tissues without allowing proper healing time. The effects are sometimes not immediately apparent to the sufferer.

Although a soccer player will not want to stop for every ache and pain, it is important to recognize when professional attention is necessary. Letting a sports injury go untreated may keep a player sidelined longer than if it had been treated promptly and correctly. Delaying treatment may even prevent a return to the game at all.

Sprains and strains are the most common lower extremity injuries. The severity of these injuries varies. Here are a few examples:

Ligament injuries to the knee are very common in sports such as soccer that require quick stops and starts, or change of direction. Cartilage tears, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains, and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injuries in the knee are some of the more common injuries that may require surgery.

Cruciate ligament injuries don’t always cause pain, but typically cause a loud “pop.” An MRI will confirm these injuries. Arthroscopic surgery is sometimes the best way to find a partial tear.

Torn knee cartilage is usually a torn meniscus. These small pieces of cartilage act as cushions between the thigh bone (femur) and the shin bone (tibia). Meniscus tears are often the result of twisting, pivoting, decelerating, or a sudden impact. Physicians use various manual tests to detect torn cartilage.

Hamstring pulls, strains, or tears are common soccer injuries. Hamstring muscles, which include the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, run down the entire back of the leg. Injuring one of them will most often lead to a sharp and sudden pain in the back of the thigh that will probably stop you in your tracks. Hamstring injuries can range from minor strains to total rupture of the muscle at the back of the thigh. Though these injuries range in degree from mild to severe, any may restrict you from being able to fully extend your knee without quite a bit of pain. Like most soccer injuries, the first response should be to rest, compress, ice, and elevate the affected area. After the majority of the pain and swelling has receded, players should begin an intense physical therapy program designed to help them regain their flexibility and strength.

While not all injuries can be avoided, most can be prevented by keeping muscles flexible and limber. Some of the best ways to avoid soccer injuries include:

  • Thorough pre-game warm-ups including stretching and sprints
  • Pre-game inspection of the field and playing area.
  • Wearing well-fitting cleats appropriate for the turf type and shin guards.
  • Proper hydration. Don’t let cramps be your first sign of trouble.
  • Eat well-balanced meals before games.
  • Although soccer can be played year-round, it is best to take one season off each year.
  • Don’t over-train. Decrease training time if pain or discomfort develops.
  • Participate in aerobic conditioning, strength training, and agility training in the off -season.

Be sure to consult with a trained sports medicine professional or athletic trainer if you have concerns about any injury, or have questions about how to prevent soccer injuries on or off the field. 

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About Author

Peter J. Symbas, M.D

Peter J. Symbas, M.D., is a board certified orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at OrthoAtlanta orthopedic and sports medicine specialists in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Symbas has recently been named Chief Medical Officer for the Atlanta United FC, Atlanta’s own major league soccer team. He has also served as the team physician for the Atlanta Silverbacks professional soccer team and Pace Academy, a preparatory school in Atlanta. He played competitive soccer at the collegiate level serving as captain of the nationally ranked Emory University men’s soccer team. Dr. Symbas is serving a two-year appointment as the Chairman of the Department of Orthopedics for Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.

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