Forget baseball—football is America’s real pastime. No other game is quite so iconic, and none are quite as exclusively American as football. There were more than one million high school football players in 2016, making it far and away the most popular sport for boys and about on par with co-ed track and field.
With football being a contact sport, injuries happen. A report that looked at a sample of nine sports at 100 U.S. high schools estimated that, in the 2016-2017 season across the country, nearly half of all football players sustained an injury.
How Do Football Injuries Happen?
According to a 2017 study published in Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, getting tackled in football is one of the main causes of injury, but nearly as many injuries happen when tackling as when being tackled. Additionally, football is a dynamic sport involving lots of explosive movements, rapid changes of direction and short stops.
Working the sidelines at high school games throughout northern New Jersey, I’ve seen quite a number of knee and ankle injuries. Zig when you should have zagged and you run the risk of rolling your ankle and damaging a ligament (a ligament injury is known as a sprain). Turn the wrong way or take a bad hit and you can end up with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury to your knee.
Equipment and Armor
While injuries occur frequently in football, they are not inevitable. Follow some common-sense safety tips and you’ll likely make it to the playoffs and beyond with your knees and ankles intact.
One of the most important things any athlete can do to protect him or herself is to keep working hard all year long. That is especially important for a sport as demanding as football.
Utilize the off-season to get stronger, build lean muscle and keep your cardiovascular conditioning strong. Think of strength and conditioning like armor; keeping the muscles around the major joints strong and flexible is great for the tendons and ligaments, and getting tired leads to poor form and sloppy technique, which can lead to injury.
Many coaches will tell you to practice like you play and play like you practice, and that should extend to safety equipment such as helmet, pads, a mouth guard and well-fitting cleats. The number of injuries that occur during practice is just slightly less than the number that happen during games.
Always wear appropriate and properly fitted equipment during both games and practices. Not only will wearing them as often as possible keep you safer, but you’ll be used to them and they won’t seem so bulky and interfering during a game.
Athletes may be eager to hit the field and start running drills or scrimmaging, especially in the spring and summer after being cooped up all winter. But performing any sport, including football, without a proper warmup and stretching routine is a recipe for injury.
As practice begins, players should participate in a warm-up routine to include full body stretching. This may prevent muscle cramps, which can cause a deficiency in technique and can lead to injury.
In addition to warm up, it’s vital for players to stay hydrated, especially during those two-a-days in the hot summer sun. Not only will being properly hydrated cut down on cramps and keep electrolytes balanced, it will help avoid heat-related injuries like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Athletes, especially high school age and younger, should drink water before and during strenuous activities.
Tough but Safe
I know football players love the game. They all want to win, and there may even be important things like college scouting and scholarships riding on a particular performance. That said, pushing through fatigue and lactic acid buildup is one thing, but injuries should never be ignored or brushed under the rug.
Make the coach, athletic trainer, or sideline physician aware of any symptoms of pain, dizziness, tingling, or headache you may be experiencing during play. Signs of potentially serious injury to the knee or ankle include:
- A pop or crack sound
- Inability to bear weight
Also, never keep quiet about a head injury. Concussions and other traumatic brain injuries (TBIs; a concussion is a mild TBI) are potentially life-altering events that can have serious consequences years or even decades later. Signs of a concussion include:
- Abnormal fatigue
- Blurred vision
- Difficulty concentrating
- Nausea or vomiting
- Slurred speech
- Temporary loss of consciousness
Some symptoms may come on right after an injury, while others can occur hours or days later. Speak up right away if you notice any of these symptoms.
I love to help young athletes of all sports. That’s why I can often be found on the sidelines of high school football games in north Jersey. If you have a young football player in your house (or if you are that player), request an appointment with me or one of my colleagues to discuss injury prevention and treatment techniques.