An overuse injury is a term used to describe an injury that occurs from tissue damage resulting from repetitive demand over a period of time rather than an acute injury such as a shoulder dislocation or an ankle sprain. These injuries can involve the muscle-tendon unit, bone, bursa, neurovascular structures, and the physis (growth plate) in pediatric athletes. A few common examples of overuse injuries include shoulder impingement, lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow), and stress fractures.
Overuse injuries may occur from training errors such as ramping up an activity too fast or exercising too long without giving adequate time for rest and recovery. These may also occur when doing just one specific exercise in which only certain muscles or bones are used, such as repetitive pull-ups, or with sport specialization where only one sport is played year-round. Poor technique can also play a role in overuse injuries in which the tissue can be repetitively overloaded in an improper fashion. This can be seen during strength training exercises such as a bench press or squats and can also occur during the actual sporting activity including throwing in baseball or swinging a club in golf.
There are several ways in which overuse injuries can potentially be prevented, including:
- Limiting exercise time to allow adequate rest and recovery
- Limiting the number of specific repetitive movements (i.e., the number or repetitions in a specific workout routine or certain sport-specific activities such as pitch counts)
- Making sure you’re using the correct technique and proper equipment when starting a new activity
- Aiming for a gradual increase to achieve your workout goals rather than increasing your activity level too quickly
If an overuse injury is suspected, don’t try to push through the pain, especially if it is worsening in frequency or intensity. While treating the symptoms and diagnosing any more significant injury will be part of the initial treatment plan discussed with your physician, together it will be important to identify the cause and possible training error that lead to the injury so that it can be properly addressed and corrected. This will help to prevent future injuries and get you back in the game.
Dr. Kenton Fibel is a Sports Medicine Physician at Hospital for Special Surgery. He is board certified in Family Medicine with a specialization in Sports Medicine and currently serves as a Team Physician for the New York Rangers. Dr. Fibel has an interest in caring for athletes who play a variety of sports and has an appreciation for the demands of higher level athletics. His expertise lies in the conservative, non-surgical approach to sports-related injuries including those that are acute, chronic, or from overuse.