Football (or ‘soccer’) is the world’s most popular sport. There are over 240 million registered players worldwide, and many more recreational football players. Most football injuries affect the lower limb, involving the thigh, groin, knee or ankle; having more knowledge of common football injuries is a great way to help you to prevent getting injured.
Here are the five most common injuries I see amongst footballers, along with how to treat them:
A hamstring strain, also called a ‘pulled hamstring’, is one of the most common injuries across all sports, as well as the most common in football. The hamstring muscles are a group of three muscles that run down the back of the thigh.
Symptoms of a hamstring strain include a sudden sharp pain at the back of the thigh, usually whilst sprinting, performing a fast stretching movement or when kicking. During such activities, the hamstrings can be forcibly stretched beyond their limits and the muscle tissue can be torn.
A tear in a muscle is referred to as a strain, and, depending on the severity, they’re classified as a grade I, II or III strain. Grade I consists of minor tears within the muscle, a grade II strain is a partial tear in the muscle, and grade III is a severe or complete rupture of the muscle. Depending on the severity of the strain, you may experience muscle tightness, pain, muscle weakness, swelling, bruising or difficulty walking or running.
It’s very important to begin treating a hamstring strain as soon as possible by following the principles of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation).
- Rest from all painful activities.
- Apply an ice pack for 15 minutes, every two hours for the first couple of days.
- A compression bandage can be worn to minimise bleeding in the muscle and to help control swelling.
- Keep the leg elevated where possible.
I also recommend seeing a chartered physiotherapist, as they can advise you on the best ways for you to rehabilitate yourself. A physiotherapist might use massage, taping and ultrasound to speed up recovery, and they will also provide you with a full rehabilitation program, consisting of stretching and strengthening exercises.
A groin strain, or a ‘pulled groin’, is a tear or strain in one of the groin muscles, resulting in inner thigh pain. Symptoms of an acute groin strain typically include a sudden sharp pain in the groin area, either in the belly of the muscle or higher. A tear in the muscle usually occurs when sprinting, changing direction or when kicking a ball.
Groin strains are graded I, II or III depending on the extent of the injury. As before, grade I consists of minor tears within the muscle, a grade II strain is a partial tear in the muscle, and grade III is a severe or complete rupture of the muscle. Depending on the severity of the strain, you may experience muscle tightness, pain, muscle weakness, swelling, bruising, or difficulty walking and pain when running and changing direction.
It’s very important to begin treating a hamstring strain as soon as possible by following the principles of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation), as explained earlier.
If an acute sudden onset groin injury is not treated properly, it could become a recurring injury and cause long-term groin pain. I recommend seeing a chartered physiotherapist, as they can advise on groin strain rehabilitation. A physiotherapist might use massage, taping and ultrasound to speed up recovery, and they will also provide you with a full rehabilitation program, consisting of stretching and strengthening exercises.
A sprained ankle is usually caused by soft tissue damage (mainly ligaments) around the ankle, often caused when the ankle twists inwards. Severe swelling, bruising around the ankle, and pressure pain are usually clear signs of a partial or complete tear of the ligament. Putting weight on the foot might be very painful, and in some cases it might be impossible – if this is the case, you should see a doctor for clarification.
As always, treatment should begin immediately, following the principles of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation).
Once the pain has subsided, it’s safe to start with some light exercise. Aqua jogging, light jogging on a treadmill and riding a resistance bike are good exercises to begin with. Don’t make the mistake of going back to soccer as soon as you are pain free. A lack of ankle stability can lead to further ankle sprains and chronic foot problems.
Your physiotherapist will be able to give you the right exercises and recommendations throughout all stages of your recovery. This will ensure a smooth recovery from your injury without any setbacks.
Knee meniscus tear
A torn meniscus is a tear to the semi-circular shock absorbing cartilage in the knee joint, which causes knee pain. It’s commonly injured through direct impact in contact sports, but it can also occur in older athletes through gradual degeneration.
There are two menisci within your knee joint that are made from tough fibrocartilage. The medial meniscus on the inside is more prone to injury than the lateral meniscus, as it’s connected to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the joint capsule, making it less mobile.
The most common cause of a meniscus injury is when you twist your knee with your foot planted to the ground, either with or without contact from another player. This may cause the menisci to get jammed between the thigh and shin bones, and if the force is sufficient, a tear of the meniscus will occur. A meniscal injury often occurs in conjunction with injuries to other structures in the knee, such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury or a medial collateral ligament sprain.
Pain and knee swelling usually accompany cartilage tears. If it’s a small tear, it might settle down with RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) and physiotherapy treatment. However, with larger cartilage tears, the flap of torn cartilage may interfere with joint movement and cause the knee to lock or give way, and it may require some relatively straightforward surgery. A doctor or a chartered physiotherapist should assess cases of knee pain and swelling that are accompanied by locking and giving way.
Knee ligament injuries
Ligament injuries are one of the most common knee injuries in soccer. There are four main ligaments in the knee: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL). These ligaments provide strength and stability to the knee joint.
A sprained or torn ligament is usually caused by a blow to the knee or a sudden twist of the knee. Symptoms often include sharp pain, swelling, hearing an audible pop or crack, knee instability and difficulty in walking. The severity and symptoms of a ligament sprain depend upon the degree of stretching or tearing, and this can be graded as either a grade I, a grade II or a grade III.
The ACL is the most common ligament to be injured. A torn ACL usually occurs due to a twisting force being applied to the knee whilst the foot is firmly planted on the ground, typically while trying to change direction or when landing from a jump. The ACL can also be injured through a direct blow to the knee whilst being tackled. If this happens, then there is usually also a tear of the MCL on the inside of the knee, as well as a meniscus injury.
As always, it’s important that the injury is treated as quickly as possible following the principles of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation). Seek medical attention from a doctor or a chartered physiotherapist, as they can advise you on your rehabilitation. If required, an MRI scan can confirm the diagnosis of a knee ligament injury, while an x-ray can check for bone injury. Should a ligament or bone injury be discovered, surgery may be necessary if you wish to return to playing at your previous level.
Tips for injury prevention
1. Maintain fitness
Be sure you’re in good physical condition at the start of soccer season. During the off-season, stick to a balanced fitness program that incorporates aerobic exercise, strength training and flexibility. If you’re out of shape at the start of the season, gradually increase your activity level and slowly build back up to a higher fitness level.
2. Warm up and stretch
Always take time to warm up and stretch, especially your groin, hamstring, quadricep and calf muscles. Research studies have shown that cold muscles are more prone to injury. Warm up with very light jogging for five minutes, and then slowly do some dynamic stretching for a further five minutes.
3. Cool down and stretch
Stretching can help to reduce muscle soreness and to keep muscles long and flexible. Be sure to stretch after each training session to reduce your risk of injury. Static stretching for 5-10 minutes has been shown to be beneficial after exercise.
4. Stay hydrated
Even mild levels of dehydration can hamper athletic performance.
Suffered an injury?
This post has been written by physiotherapist Liam Mc Ginley.