Are Injuries Predictable in Some Athletes?

I’ve had the opportunity to help people from all walks of life heal themselves from pain and injury over the last twenty years and I field this question often. While I don’t carry around a crystal ball, there are six tell-tale signs that an injury is possible or even imminent. All it takes is one of these conditions to be present to bring on an unwanted ailment but often times it’s the combination of several that lead to trouble. In the unfortunate situation that all six are in the same room at once, better keep the doctor on speed dial because injury is all but inevitable.

1. Poor Posture and Gait Mechanics

The first major sign someone is on the verge of jumping on the pain train is when they’re carrying a major postural imbalance or a hitch in their stride. For example, if you see one shoulder dropped way lower than the other while looking at someone from the front or back, it’s likely a back strain or a shoulder injury is waiting in the wings.

I recognized this in Pete Sampras years ago right before he blew out his back. His right shoulder had fallen to a completely different latitude and within weeks he was sidelined with a back injury. In terms of walking mechanics, Andy Murray’s major hip rotation was evident months before he announced his hip injury. As a therapist, these are traits you try your best to identify and eliminate before an unwanted ailment crashes the party.

2. Lack of Mobility/Flexibility

Anyone with tight muscles is at risk of injury, but if you notice a person doesn’t bend it’s a good sign they’ll eventually break.

A lack of hip mobility is especially ominous. Any restriction in the hips can lead to all kinds of injuries including knee pain, hamstring pulls or a multitude of back issues. Thankfully, for athletes of all levels with excessive hip tightness, restoring a little bit of extra motion and function goes a very long way towards staying healthy.

3. A Person’s Injury History and a History of Multiple Injuries

Everyone has an injury history but not everyone has suffered from multiple
injuries.
If someone has a long history of multiple injuries then it’s not a stretch to predict more will follow. These unfortunate people are often labeled as “injury prone,” though I’m a firm believer there’s always hope with the right mentoring and help.

Studying someone’s injury history – regardless of how many they’ve endured – is often helpful in predicting muscle imbalances and where they’re compensating from past injuries. For example, if there’s a history of a torn ACL or broken ankle – the athlete often compensates for the injury, even after rehab, by unconsciously unweighting the injured side and overloading the “good” side Ninety percent of the time the side that becomes injured is the side that’s being overloaded. Therefore, if someone has experienced a significant injury on one side, it’s a fair bet the opposite side is now under strain and at risk.

4. Emotional Stress

Emotional stress piled on to physical demand increases the strain on the body exponentially. This is why so many people complain of shoulder or neck pain when they’re “stressed out.” The emotional strain is literally weighing on them and creating physical pain. We break at our weakest points, and the added emotional baggage can further expose an already vulnerable area which often leads to injury.

5. Over-Training or Over Playing

An over-trained athlete of any level is vulnerable to injury much like someone who plays too much without sufficient rest. In both cases, an injury is the body’s cry for a desperately needed break. Many athletes break down by the end of the season simply because fatigue has set in and their bodies have had enough. Fatigue added to any of the other factors on this list provides key ingredients for trouble.

6. Playing Style

Playing style alone isn’t necessarily a predictor of future injuries but the most aggressive athletes in any sport expose themselves to more risk than those smoother, laid back types. Take Rafael Nadal’s brilliant and brute force style play versus Federer’s effortlessly smooth glide. Add that to the difference in body types – Fed is lean and extremely flexible while Rafa is muscular and a little less malleable – and the odds of injury unfortunately favor the Spaniard. Of course, both athletes have endured past injuries yet Rafa seems to be leading that category for now despite being younger by three years.

None of these factors taken individually are guaranteed to breed injuries but they’re solid indicators of increased risk. Unfortunately, when all of them are present in one athlete, which is very common, the door is wide open with a welcome mat and a sign that says, “All Ailments Welcome.”

I’d say it’s the coaches and trainer’s jobs to constantly monitor their athletes and watch for the signs, but it’s actually the athlete’s responsibility. Like the rest of us, every athlete, and every human by a certain age, is responsible for his or her own health and no one else. The support crew can do their part but without the athlete’s input there’s only so much the crew can do.

If you notice you fall into any of these categories then take immediate action and
stay healthy!

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