Don’t risk the wrong diagnosis of your sports injury

They say, "no pain, no gain." But if that pain is a sports injury, you could lose a lot more than you gain. That's why it's so important to get injuries diagnosed quickly and by the right health professional. We asked the experts at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre to share their insider's knowledge and recommendations.

Diagnosis is a team effort

Many professions have developed specialist qualifications in certain areas of interest, and sports medicine is no different. That means doctors, physiotherapists and several other health professionals can specialise in sports injuries. 

Because sports medicine is an evolving specialisation in a new and growing field, diagnosis of sports injuries often requires a team of experts. Experience with a sport and its common injuries can be just as important as one's profession when determining who makes the diagnosis.

The key players, on and off the field

Sports injury is a very general term referring to an injury sustained in sporting pursuits. While this definition may sound obvious, sports injuries don't always present in an obvious way. That's why the context is important in determining the most appropriate person to make the diagnosis.

Emergency situations: In the case of emergency sports injuries, when you don't have the luxury of time, the most qualified person present is the most appropriate to make a diagnosis. Australia has a network of qualified sports trainers at community and professional events, who can provide immediate triage and referral. If a hospital transfer is required, then an emergency physician, orthopaedic surgeon or other hospital-based professional will make the diagnosis.

Elite sports: In elite sports such as AFL or NRL, the medical team often allocates specific types of injuries to either the doctor, physiotherapist or sports trainer who attends the player on the field. When removed from the field, the player may be assessed by a team of professionals, including a physiotherapist, sports physician, emergency physician (in severe trauma), or even a radiologist using ultrasound imaging.

Sports concussion: An international panel of experts has recommended that a medical practitioner is required to make the diagnosis of concussion. However, other health professionals should be aware of the signs of possible concussion and remove the athlete from the field until a diagnosis is made. A medical practitioner should also make the decision that an athlete has recovered from concussion and is safe to return to sport.

The two sides of sports injuries

In a sports medicine clinic, the first step when seeing a new injury is to obtain a clear and accurate diagnosis. Sports injuries may be described as acute or overuse.

Acute injuries: Usually the result of a single, traumatic event. Common examples include wrist fracture, ankle sprain, shoulder dislocation, and hamstring muscle strain.

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Overuse injuries: The result of repetitive micro-trauma to the tendons, bones and joints. These injuries are subtle and usually occur gradually over time, making them challenging to diagnose and treat. Common examples include tennis elbow, swimmer's shoulder, runner's knee, jumper's knee, Achilles tendonitis and shin splints. A study by Dr Peter Baquie at Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre showed that about half of sports injury presentations were from overuse.

Diagnosis determines the game plan

In sports injuries, and especially overuse, a diagnosis is more than just naming the pathology. It should include a complete understanding of the underlying causes behind the injury. That's why it's helpful if a team of professionals works together to understand the context in which the injury developed.

Without a diagnosis, there can't be a prognosis. A correct diagnosis is essential for health professionals to treat and rehabilitate the injury, prevent its recurrence, and determine return to play dates.

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