Taking your time with acute injuries

One of the benefits of working in sport is that you usually get to see injuries first hand, the mechanism, the severity, even the initial management. We have discussed pitch sidee management before (here) but what about the day, or days, following? Are we doing enough to aid the healing processes in the early stages, or perhaps too much? With our best intentions of helping an injured athlete, are we over looking the importance of “protection”?

This blog discusses the assessment of those more serious injuries – the ones that require athletes to stop in their tracks, cease the game / training. Not those little niggles that walk in at the end of the day.

Reasoning with the history:

Knowledge of the mechanism of injury can greatly aid your management throughout the later stages of your treatment. Muscular injuries for example, can be simply divided into two traumatic categories; direct (laceration and contusion) and indirect (strains) (Huard et al 2002 (here); Petersen & Holmlich 2005 (here)). Appreciating the differences in these mechanisms will certainly influence your return to train criteria later on, but what about in the acute settings? Would your treatment change on day 1 or 2 with these different mechanisms? Skeletal muscles are built of basic structural elements, myofibers. Individual myofibrils are surrounded by the endomysium and bundles of myofibrils are surrounded by the perimysium (Haurd et al 2002). Lower grade injuries such as exercise induced muscle fatigue, will only affect the myofibrils, resulting in raised creatine kinease levels (Ahmad et al 2013 here). Regardless of the mechanism, damage to the fascia and extracellular matrix would be consistent with a higher grade injury and would see the release of muscle enzymes, destruction of collagen and proteoglycans as well as the presence of inflammation (Huard et al 2002; Ahmad et al 2013). The formation of haematomas in combination with inflammation can create an ischaemic environment, increasing the risk of further muscle damage (Ahmad et al 2013).

There seems to be an false sense of urgency created in these acute situations, especially at the elite level where time lost to injury means big money and with that brings an extra level of stress and pressure to the therapist, the athlete & the coach. But the injury has happened.. we can’t change that! We can certainly make it worse though. What are we expecting to find and see with our immediate objective tests? Lets say we have just seen someone recoil, fall to the floor clutching their hamstring, unable to walk off the field of play.. is a straight leg raise or resisted knee flexion test going to tell us something we didn’t already know? OK, so maybe we want to give all parties an idea of how bad this is.

“Do you think its grade one or two?” 


There are numerous injury classification systems currently used in practice, although traditional classifications can be confusing. Ahmad et al (2013) describe 3 grades of injury from mild to severe, with one set of definitions relating to clinical presentation but with differing definitions depending on the influence of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). When I was training, we used the Gr I, II & III system that was disseminated by Peetrons in 2002 (here). In 2012, the Munich consensus group (paper here) sought to clarify the term “strain” and provide a structured classification system for clinicians. Table 1 is an overview of the existing classification systems pre-2012 that are widely used in the literature as well as clinical practice.

O’Donoghue 1962 Ryan 1969 (initially for quadriceps) Takebayashi 1995, Peetrons 2002 (Ultrasound-based) Stoller 2007 (MRI-based)
Grade I No appreciable tissue tearing, no loss of function or strength, only a low-grade inflammatory response Tear of a few muscle fibres, fascia remaining intact No abnormalities or diffuse bleeding with/without focal fibre rupture less than 5% of the muscle involved MRI-negative=0% structural damage. Hyperintense oedema with or without hemorrhage
Grade II Tissue damage, strength of the musculotendinous unit reduced, some residual function Tear of a moderate number of fibres, fascia remaining intact Partial rupture: focal fibre rupture more than 5% of the muscle involved with/without fascial injury MRI-positive with tearing up to 50% of the muscle fibres. Possible hyperintense focal defect and partial retraction of muscle fibres
Grade III Complete tear of musculotendinous unit, complete loss of function Tear of many fibres with partial tearing of the fascia Complete muscle rupture with retraction, fascial injury Muscle rupture=100% structural damage. Complete tearing with or without muscle retraction
Grade IV X Complete tear of the muscle and fascia of the muscle–tendon unit X X
Table 1: Descriptions of muscle classification systems used clinically From Mueller-Wohlfahrt et al (2012)

The Munich consensus established that there was disparaging definitions amongst clinicians regarding the term “strain” and also the classification of injury. The rise of imaging to support clinical findings further added to the confusion of defining a Grade I injury that may not be present on MRI. Amongst many irregularities with the classification systems in Table 1, there was the vague nature of defining when one grade becomes another. As a result, Mueller-Wohlfahrt et al (2012) produced a new classification system that included delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) & contusions and allowed clinicians greater manoeuvrability in diagnosing muscle injuries. In 2014, this was taken a step further by Noel Pollock and colleagues at  British Athletics (paper here) (he explains why much better than I could, here on this BJSM podcast).

“If you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them” – Dalai Lama

I’m pretty sure he just referenced the Dalai Lama…

So with all this confusion regarding classification ,what are we supposed to say to the athlete and what are we to do? Things always look bad in the initial stages. Generally if there is pain on the way to the treatment room (if they have stopped playing, then there almost certainly will be) how much more do you need to know? This is where the mechanism & history is key. It may be required to rule out any bony injury at this stage, but again, if you have seen them pull up and clutch a muscle belly then that may not be essential – a bonus of being pitch side to observe such things. What about ligamentous injuries? Well do we need to assess instability today? Is there a chance that we could make something that is stable unstable by repeatedly testing it in the early stages? Even if we think its severe, like a complete ACL, most surgeons won’t operate while there is active swelling anyway. Some specific injuries DO require this, hand injuries for example may require more immediate attention from an orthopedic surgeon. Or total syndesmosis ruptures that usually require an operation within 2 weeks. (A good discussion on this injury was had recently by the PT Inquest guys here)

In the very acute stages (I’m talking first day or two) our role is to help reduce and minimize pain, reduce risk of secondary injury and ensure the athlete is safe to mobilize at home independently. What do we gain by giving them a classification of injury there and then?

“Lets let the swelling and pain settle down, get you comfortable and in a day or two we will be able to be more accurate with our assessment and diagnosis” – I think thats a pretty reasonable thing to say on the day of an injury and I’m yet to have any complaints from athletes, providing you explain why you are doing this. I’m not going to expose myself to sensitivity and specificity of tests because I will undoubtedly get it wrong, but in the heat of the moment, when everything hurts, you will almost certainly find false positives in tests – resulting in inaccurate diagnosis.


I’ll admit, this takes a bit of confidence. When the treatment room is full of staff, other athletes, the injured athlete themselves. To stand there and hardly do anything seems counter intuitive. But take a breath and ask yourself, “what do I NEED to know at this very moment?” It shouldn’t be, “What tests do I know that I could use here” – these two questions are very subtly different but the actions that follow them are huge. You aren’t there to show the room what assessment skills you have, not on day one. Respect the injury.

The next couple of days can also tell you a lot of information without you needing to pull and prod on the table. Whats the 24 hour pattern of pain? Any sign of inflammation? Yes? Then whats a prolonged assessment going to do other than promote more inflammation. Check Aggravating / easing factors or limiting ADLs – getting on and off the toilet seat without excruciating pain may be enough info that you don’t need to assess a squat today. Again, be comfortable treating what you do know, treat the inflammation and the pain. When that settles, we can begin to explore a bit more specifically. Will a positive test today get them back to training quicker? No.

What about treatments?

The classic PRICE guidelines have now been superseded by the POLICE (Protect, Optimal Loading, Ice, Compression, Elevation) guidelines (here). I’ve previously debated the clinical relevance of ice here and regular readers of this blog (mum and my mate Conor) are probably familiar with my interest in Optimal Loading. Regardless of if you use PRICE or POLICE, one thing we seem to overlook is the very first letter. Protect. Protect the injury from secondary damage and unnecessary pain. This may mean not doing very much at all. Consider the nociceptive input of us repeatedly prodding the injury, whether its part of assessment or treatment. Again, we go back to the pressures of sport – to have an athlete sat there doing nothing can be uncomfortable for the staff and boring for the athlete. This is where the creativity of “optimal loading” comes in handy. Protect the injury, keep the rest of the athlete busy.


I’m not suggesting we just sit and wait for weeks hoping they get better on their own, but just try and think about why you want to assess something and how is that answer going to influence your management on this day. I appreciate that objective measures are going to be beneficial, but just take the ones you need. Now obviously, if symptoms drastically improve over night, we can be a bit more direct with our assessment. It’s here we can start to expand our objective measures.

  • Don’t rush to a diagnosis or classification (have the differentials in the back of your mind or discuss them with colleagues / club doctors)
  • Don’t over assess for the sake of it (do enough to keep the athlete safe but minimize effects of injury)
  • Don’t over treat (sometimes, less is more!)


Remember, this isn’t aimed at those little niggly injuries that DO warrant further assessment – in these cases a thorough assessment may actually help reduce the risk of a full blown injury. Instead, this is for those injuries that you know in the back of your mind are out for a few days / weeks. If anything, the more severe (duration) the injury, the less acute assessment required perhaps? Just remember to exclude all those nasties!!

I appreciate I’ve probably given more questions than answers in this blog, but that was the aim. This wasn’t supposed to be a recipe but has hopefully sparked some questions about your clinical reasoning.


Yours in sport,





Concussion – Pitchside management

I can see the problem here – half of his face is missing

A while back, we wrote a blog about pitchside management (here) and I was very careful not to discuss concussion at the time as its potentially a topic that warrants a couple of blogs on it own (blog #2 will discuss post concussion management).

Since writing that blog, there have been a number of high-profile head injuries in the football World Cup and more recently in the IRB 6 Nations. It’s very easy to assess such scenarios from the armchair with the benefits of replays – but what these examples did do was spark positive discussions about a topic that unfortunately is glossed over within sport (not necessarily sports medicine – a few tweeters in particular that discuss the topic a bit: @PhysioRichmond, @Sophie_T_SEM, @SportsDocSkye , @KLM390).

George Norths contenious concussion in 2015 Six Nations

What is concussion?

The RFU describes concussion as:

a functional disturbance of the brain without any associated structural pathology (as visible using current scanning technology) that results from forces transmitted to the brain (either directly or indirectly). It is generally considered part of the spectrum of traumatic brain injury (TBI)

One issue we have as clinicians is a poorly defined summary of what concussion is – where does an acute bang to the head that causes some dizziness become “concussion”? The first thing to clarify is that not all head injuries are concussions, and not all concussions result from head injuries (explained later). In fact, terming concussion a “traumatic brain injury” (TBI) may be more accurate – I am certainly not a fan of the word “mild” when discussing brain injuries.

We also have no gold standard for assessing concussion. In the updated version of the Sports Concussion Assessment Tool version 3 (SCAT3), the authors describe (here) clinical diagnosis as a combination of symptoms, physical signs and impaired cognitive function. To diagnose a concussion, some of the following symptoms should be present (via the CDC):

TBI symptoms physical icon.gifPhysical TBI symptoms emotional icon.gifEmotional/
TBI symptoms sleep icon.gifSleep
Difficulty thinking clearly HeadacheFuzzy or blurry vision Irritability Sleeping more than usual
Feeling slowed down Nausea or vomiting
(early on)Dizziness
Sadness Sleep less than usual
Difficulty concentrating Sensitivity to noise or lightBalance problems More emotional Trouble falling asleep
Difficulty remembering new information Feeling tired, having no energy Nervousness or anxiety

Perhaps one reason concussion isn’t taken as seriously as it should is the lack of external signs. In some cases, it is a hidden injury. Classed as a TBI, there is undoubtably going to be swelling associated with a concussion. A swollen knee or ankle looks pretty drastic to players and coaches, its easy to point at and compare to the other limb and easy to explain why you are removing someone from the field of play. But here we are talking about something contained within the skull. There are also elements of a concussion that we won’t see in the 2 minutes we have on the pitch – such as disrupted sleep, anxiety, drastic mood swings (continued management discussed in forthcoming blog). So now we start to see some of the difficulties with assessing a head injury at pitchside..

Saying the C-Word

“He’ll be alright”

So, following a clash of heads on the pitch, we rush on to survey the scene. As well as the adrenaline associated with getting on the pitch and thinking quickly about what to do & say, you probably have a referee, a handful of players, spectators and the coaching staff all asking whats going on. Lets assume there is no associated neck injury (essential to check following any head injury!!), no abrasions or lacerations – just this hidden injury within the skull. How many of those symptoms listed above should be present before you diagnose a concussion? And if they aren’t present now, how might continued swelling affect them in 1 minute, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Some signs and symptoms may not evolve for hours (McCrory et al). The two voices in your head are saying:

“If this players gets better in a minute and I take them off, the players and coaches are going to crucify me – they’ll probably never tell me the truth about their injuries again because they think I’ll sub them every time.. Should I let them carry on for a bit?”


“Actually, I Couldnt care less what they think, even if they are star player and we lose, we are talking about this persons brain!”

I believe things are about to change, if they havent already, but previously just saying the word concussion in rugby ruled a player out for a minimum of 3 weeks. Two concussions in one season for the same player would rule them out for the remainder of the season. Designed to safeguard the player and the medical team, this does add a bit more pressure to on-pitch assessments.

Making the Call

There are huge benefits to being pitchside to witness injuries, especially when the injury may result in the loss of memory of said injury. Observing the mechanism of injury can give you great indicator as to potential problems. But remember, not all concussions are caused by impact injuries to the head. McCrory et al (here) define concussion as:

“An injury caused by a direct blow to the head, face, neck, or somewhere else on the body with an impulsive force transmitted to the head, resulting in a graded set of clinical symptoms”

The population you work with is going to be key here. Reduced neck musculature and head control could make younger athletes, or slighter built adult athletes, more susceptible to non-head impact concussions.

It is personal opinion, but I would say some symptoms are more severe than others. For example, ANY loss of consciousness, even seconds and the player should come straight off. We are talking about an event that is significant enough to stop the brain working. Poor terminology, but imagine the fear and anxiety if you told an athlete their back didn’t work – I’m pretty sure they would be asking for your help then (**semantic police disclaimer – I don’t recommend ever telling someone “something doesn’t work”**).

Secondly, vomiting is a pretty clear indicator of a concussion. Although the mechanisms aren’t quite clear, it’s believed to be a combination of individual intrinsic factors (Brown et al 2000), which means the absence of vomiting unfortunately doesn’t rule a concussion out, but the presence of it definitely makes the diagnosis more likely.

Finally, the third thing I would always look for, or listen for, is what they are saying and how they are saying it. If it is incoherent or in any way bizarre (depends on your athlete, you have a pre-existing level of weird that you may want to work from) then that’s a pretty good sign of a brain injury. Most people are familiar with asking your short-term memory questions with a head injury, but equally important to what they aren’t saying, is what they are saying – self-control, judgement & decision-making occurs in the frontal lobe and is one of the first skills to diminish following a brain injury. With a limb injury you may be inclined to listen to their judgement and monitor performance & function briefly, but head injuries are one example where the athlete shouldn’t be involved in the immediate decision-making process. As mentioned above, this may be an invisible injury and it may be tricky to demonstrate to a concussed athlete that they are concussed.

Alvaro Pereria out cold in Brazil world cup
Later, he overruled his own doctor to continue playing.


I think this is pretty straight forward. There is no game or event that is bigger than a persons life. Admittedly, I have never worked at a World Cup or a 6 Nations event but the level of sport you work in shouldnt matter either. This is an injury that could have serious implications on quality of life, regardless of the quality of sport. If there is any doubt in your mind about a potential concussion, they need to come off.

Look back at the RFU description of concussion – “a functional disturbance of the brain…” We are talking about THE BRAIN. It controls EVERYTHING. How a person feels, thinks, moves, sees… Do I need to go on? There is some seriously concerning data coming out from America about long-term effects of repeated concussion in the NFL with regards to depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Just this year, NFL line backer Chris Brland, aged 24, retired from the game due to fear of the effects from repeated concussions (here).

There are numerous pressures on therapists pitchside to make quick calls regarding injuries. It is pleasing to see some discussions in rugby and football about providing more time for head injury assessment, similar to a blood sub, but I would say that if there is enough doubt to request this extra time to monitor, is that sufficient doubt to suspect a traumatic brain injury?

BOD ruled out of 3rd Lions test in 2009 with concussion

There is a whole other blog (or three) to discuss different assessment tools and post-concussion management – how it differs between adults and younger athletes, so bear with us – we’re already working on that.

For those that want to know more – The 2015 ACPSEM conference has Dr Jonathan Hansen (here) (AKA @SportsDocSkye) discussing concussion management in sport – dont miss it!


Yours in sport,