After experiencing an injury, the question of “when can I play again” is often the first to be asked.
Unfortunately, the answer is usually “it depends”.
The difficult part about healing an injury is that once the injury has happened, there are a variety of factors that can impede the healing process.
What may have originally been a 4 week rehab, may turn into 6 or 8 weeks because you returned to sport too quickly, re-injuring yourself.
In this article, we will talk about knowing when to go back to sport and how to go through that process.
When is it time to start thinking about returning to sport?
The initial swelling and pain have ceased
Range of motion, flexibility and strength are equal bilaterally
Minimal to no pain is felt with walking and regular daily activities
However, you can't throw yourself back into your sport 100% after an injury and expect it not to flare up.
What should you consider when returning to sport after an injury?
What are the demands of my sport? eg
Change of direction
Is it a power sport or an endurance sport or does it require aspects of both?
Terrain - astro turf vs forest path vs concrete floor
Contact or non-contact
Equipment - pads, cleats, trainers, stick, football, etc.
Once you have these demands sorted, most likely you will realise that you are unable to fulfill all of them with your current injury.
How to strengthen your injury step-by-step
It's time to challenge the demands step by step. This will further strengthen the injury and get it ready for sports specific demands.
Try following the steps listed below:
1) Walk through the movements of your sport
Try all the different movements your sport requires at a slow and controlled pace. For example, if you’re a tennis player, use your tennis racquet and practice slow and controlled forehand swings, backhand swings and serves without a ball.
2) Warm-up drills
Think about the warm-up drills you would do before a practice or match and go through those drills. For example, a runner would go through a full dynamic warm-up: skips, bum kicks, hip circles, side shuffles, lateral lunges, forward lunges, squats, leg kicks, calf raises, 2 minute light jog.
3) Drills at 60% - 80% maximal effort
With no contact (in a contact sport) go through specific drills using the equipment for the sport. For example, a footballer would go through footwork drills, shooting drills and passing drills. If you are on a team, participate in a practice at 70% maximal effort with no contact. If you do not have a practice setting, increase the intensity and frequency of the drills over a couple of days to see if the injury flares up before returning to a full match or competition.
4) Maximal effort drills and/ or practice
In an ideal world, you would participate fully in a practice with contact (in appropriate sports) before returning to a game. If an athlete feels good with no restrictions in a practice then going into a full match situation or competition is appropriate.
Please note that the steps listed in this article are not specific and are generalised to many types of injuries. It may be best to seek advice from a sports therapist to understand how best you can progress through these steps.
Start small and build
Progress through drills, increasing difficulty and intensity appropriately
Leave 24 hours between each step of progression to see how the injury responds to the stress it is put through
If there is a flare-up, seek an assessment by a sports therapist to see where the weaknesses remain before progressing further