Football, lacrosse and rugby require miles of running - with quick stops and starts - per game. Competition is usually on grass fields, which "give" so players may change direction quickly. It also provides a soft landing surface on which to crash. Just by the nature of these games, injuries are inevitable. The lower extremities - an athlete's steering, accelerator and braking systems - are particularly susceptible. But with proper conditioning, equipment, and technique, competitors in contact sports have successful, healthy playing seasons.
Podiatrists are specialists in care of the lower extremities. Not only do they treat injured athletes and get them back into competition as soon as safely possible, but they also help athletes get into a condition that minimizes their risk of injury to the foot and ankle.
The time a football, lacrosse or rugby player spends in an actual game represents only a tiny fraction of time spent in practice, conditioning for competition. Practice involves hours of running, repetitive drills and scrimmages every day.
While conditioning exercises in practice will strengthen and improve flexibility in the lower extremities, the repeated stress of practice may bring on chronic, or "overuse" injuries. These injuries can nag at a player and hamper, if not end, a season of competition.
Overuse injuries also come from faulty biomechanics of the feet - how the lower extremity physically adjusts to the ground. If an athlete has flat feet, which tend to pronate (out-toe), or excessively high arches, which often supinate (in-toe), extensive running and cutting can produce chronically strained ankles.
Before taking the practice field, it's wise to be examined by a podiatrist specializing in sports medicine, who will identify any biomechanical abnormalities that increase the chance of injury. The podiatrist may recommend specific exercises to strengthen and improve flexibility of the foot and ankle, or recommend taping or padding of the foot or ankle before practice and competition. A podiatrist may also prescribe orthoses, customized shoe inserts that correct biomechanical problems by redistributing the body's weight.
Podiatrists say proper stretching and warm-up before and after home workouts, practice, and before games go far to prevent overuse injuries to the supporting structures of the lower extremity. Warm-up and cool-down exercises should take five to 10 minutes and should be conducted in a stretch-hold-relax pattern, without any bouncing or pulling. When muscles are properly warmed up, the strain on muscles, tendons and joints is reduced.
Football players, who today more than ever combine size with speed, experience high-impact collision on virtually every play. Lacrosse players "check" much like hockey players, but wear thin pads on the arms and shoulders. Rugby players wear no padding at all.
The foot and ankle bear the brunt of the crashes, bumps, and bruises of contacts sports. Feet get stepped on, kicked, jammed, twisted, and cut. Quick changes in direction and hard tackling can lead to sprains and fractures of the ankle.
Impact, or "trauma injuries are more serious than overuse injuries, and require recovery time away from the practice and game field. Immediate treatment should include the "RICE" formula: rest, ice, compression and elevation.
Trauma injuries should always be treated by a medical professional such as a podiatrist, and be fully healed before returning to the field. Players who lie about how an injury feels or take painkillers to play through a trauma injury, are not helping their team. They are putting themselves in danger of aggravated or permanent injury.
Cleats are the footwear of choice for all contact sports down to the youth leagues. Cleats are generally safe for young ankles. Cleats should be light and flexible, and always fit properly. Uppers should be supple (no hand-me-downs, please), and there should be, and at least a finger's width separation between the tip of the big toe and the end of the shoe. Laces should be tight.
When shopping for cleats, wear the same style of socks you intend to wear in competition. Shop in the afternoon, when the feet are naturally slightly swollen. Investing in proper footwear for a young athlete is much less expensive than medical treatment later.
Contact sports are sometimes played on artificial turf, which presents a new set of concerns for an athlete. Some surfaces simulate the texture of grass, and others are little more than carpet. All forms of artificial surface are harder than grass, and make for a faster pace of play. Cross-training shoes or sneakers are the footwear of choice on artificial turf.
Because the surfaces do not "give" like grass, playing on them may be more hazardous to the lower extremities. Players should be well familiarized with the dynamics of running and changing direction on "turf" before competing on it.
Trainers and physicians frequently tape the feet and ankles of their players for added stability, especially on artificial turf. Proper taping can help prevent injuries from occurring, and keep a minor injury from becoming a major one.
Keeping the lower extremities healthy is so important to an athlete that most all professional football and soccer teams have a team podiatrist, who treats minor problems like corns, calluses, and blisters, to major injuries like fractures and dislocations. The most common injuries suffered in contact sports include:
Turf toe - Turf toe is a painful jam or hyperextension of the big toe. The condition is more common on artificial turf, but can happen on grass as well. Immediate treatment includes the RICE regimen, and wearing a stiffer shoe prevents aggravation of the injury. Splinting the toe or special orthoses can also help.
Ankle sprains Making contact on a firmly planted ankle can forcibly invert the joint and damage ligaments, resulting in a sprain. Immediate treatment using the RICE formula to reduce swelling is important to quick healing. Any sprain that doesn't show improvement in three days should be checked by a podiatrist or family physician.
Fractures - There are two distinct kinds of fractures that require vastly different treatment. Stress fractures are incomplete cracks in bone caused by overuse. Stress fractures heal with complete rest. Fractures are more serious injuries that require immediate medical attention. Casting and sometimes surgery is required to immobilize fractures and set breaks. Requiring 10 to12 weeks for rehabilitation, a fracture or a break essentially ends a season of competition in any contact sport.
Source: American Podiatric Medical Association