With the NBA season now underway, players will be thinking about goals and expectations for the year – where they stand in the lineup, a specific stat, or team ranking. What may not be included on the list of goals is being free from injury, which could arguably be one of the biggest factors to being able to accomplish all of the other goals.
Basketball is considered a contact sport, as opposed to a collision sport like football or hockey. It has one of the highest injury rates compared to other contact sports with players in the NBA and WNBA having the highest risk. Research has identified a handful of injuries that are common among basketball players:
- Ankle sprains: From high school to the professionals, ankle sprains are the most common injury for basketball players. It is an injury of ligaments that stabilize the ankle joint, most often the ones on the outside (lateral aspect). The injury can occur when a player tries to move side-to-side quickly or when a player comes down from jumping and lands on another player’s foot. Strengthening and stretching of the ankle are important to both preventing the injury and treating it. Once a player suffers an ankle sprain, he or she is at increased risk of injuring it again. Taping the ankle or using an ankle brace can help try to prevent future ankle sprains.
- Knee ligament injuries: Basketball players are often afflicted by injuries of ligaments of the knee, commonly the MCL (medial collateral ligament) and ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). The MCL can be injured in varying degrees, ranging from a mild sprain to a complete tear. If this is the only injury of the knee, it can often heal well without surgery. However, an injury of the ACL is most commonly a complete tear, which is a season-ending injury as it requires surgery to reconstruct the ligament followed by a long rehab program. Players can attempt to prevent these injuries through a neuromuscular training program which helps with strength and balance to keep the knee stable.
- Jumper’s knee: This term refers to an injury of the patellar tendon that connects the kneecap (patella) to the lower leg (tibia). The tendon is put under significant stress the repetitive jumping and sprinting involved in playing basketball. In mild cases, the tendon can be inflamed (“tendinitis”) but more often it is a longer-lasting injury that flares up during periods of intense activity (“tendinosis”). Jumper’s knee is best treated with rest, stretching, anti-inflammatory medications, and a strengthening program once it has calmed down. Some players choose to use a patellar tendon strap.
- Achilles tendon injuries: Similar to jumper’s knee, the Achilles tendon is under a great deal of stress with basketball. The Achilles tendon can develop as an overuse injury in the case of tendinitis and tendinosis, but it can also be an acute injury in the case of a tendon rupture. An Achilles tendon rupture is another season-ending injury that requires surgery. Preventing these injuries requires good stretching of the calf and Achilles tendon as well as strengthening exercises, specifically “eccentric” exercises.
- Concussion: This is a risk for all contact and collision sports. In basketball, a concussion can occur from a player’s head hitting another player (head-to-head/shoulder/elbow/knee/etc.) or when the head hits when falling to the floor. Players and coaches should be aware of symptoms of concussion so a player with a suspected concussion can undergo the necessary. Treatment involves rest from exercise followed by a slow return to play once symptoms have subsided.
Injuries are unavoidable and will always be a part of the game of basketball. However, with the proper training and conditioning ahead of time and by going through the necessary rehab after injuries, the time loss due to injuries can be lessened so that players can have the best opportunity to achieve the goals that they have for the season ahead.
Dr. Brett Toresdahl is an Assistant Attending Physician at Hospital for Special Surgery. He is board certified in family medicine and has a certificate of added qualification in sports medicine. Dr. Toresdahl is a team physician for U.S. Biathlon and the Westchester Knicks NBA D-League Team. He previously served as the Seattle Storm (WNBA) Team Physician, University of Washington Athletics Team Physician, Seattle Marathon Assistant Medical Director, and Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Medical Captain.