A Step-By-Step Guide to Diagnosis of an Sports Injury

Sports injuries are not uncommon. The severity of the injury determines what type of care should be given for treatment. This blog post will discuss the steps and process to diagnose an injury, from identifying the type of injury to determining if there is a need for orthopedic referral. 

There are many different types of sports injuries such as fractures or sprains, but this article focuses on general guidelines for diagnosis.

Step one in sports injury diagnosis: Identify the type of injury

Sport Injuries and everything you need to know
Sport Injuries and everything you need to know

Most injuries are the result of a traumatic event to the body. The severity and type vary greatly depending on the injury sustained, but oftentimes they can be categorized as either acute or chronic pain. 

Acute pain typically lasts only for hours after an incident while chronic pain is lasting longer than three months from time of occurrence.

Acute Injuries: 

These types of injuries usually involve damage to the soft tissues like muscles, ligaments, tendons or fascia that may stretch (sprain) or rupture. 

Common signs and symptoms include:

  •  swelling, 
  • bruising, 
  • tenderness 
  • and decreased range-of-motion with certain movements such as twisting in both directions during functional testing. 

Chronic Pain: 

Chronic pains occur as a result of more chronic injuries that happen over time like arthritis or bursitis. These may not have any signs and symptoms besides pain, but can also involve stiffness, swelling, redness and decreased range-of-motion. 

In order to diagnose an injury you need to know the type of injury first because they require different treatments. If there is no improvement in symptoms after six weeks it’s recommended to see a doctor for referral purposes.

 The medical history should be taken which includes when the injury occurred and how often this has happened before as well as if medications are being used currently for other known conditions such as Fibromyalgia or Diabetes Mellitus. There may be a need for an x-ray or MRI scan if it’s suspected that there is damage to the bones.

Step two in sports injury diagnosis: Evaluate the type of injury

The next step in diagnosis is to evaluate the severity and extent of an injury. This can be done by looking at their symptoms like how much they are able to move, whether or not there is any swelling that might have caused a change in skin color, temperature, etc. 

The patient’s medical history will also help determine what may have happened so it needs to be taken into consideration as well when determining the seriousness of an injury.

Certain injuries such as broken bones need surgery right away while others with sprain/strains only require rest until pain has subsided before physical therapy begins. 

Step three in sports injury diagnosis: Determine if there are any broken bones or fractures

Sometimes during sports activities people don’t necessarily realize that they have fractured or broken bones. This can be determined by taking an X-ray to see if there is any increased density in the area where their pain is coming from.

But sometimes it may not show up either which means another test such as a CT scan must happen for doctors to make sure no other injuries are happening internally. 

The location and type of injury will help guide you to the appropriate course of action. A broken bone in a weight-bearing joint such as your ankle for example, may require surgery or casting whereas a fractured nose is more straightforward. 

Step four in sports injury diagnosis: Check for muscle spasms, inflammation, and swelling 

Muscle spasms could mean injury has been going on longer than anticipated while inflammation and swelling usually indicate an acute injury that will need more immediate care.

 It’s often important during this step of diagnosis to look at whether mobility has decreased due to leg weakness because something like compartment syndrome might need surgery right away before muscles get cut off and nerves are damaged. 

One of the other main signs to look for during this step is that swelling might not be going down, which could lead to more serious injury such as a hematoma or compartment syndrome which will need surgery right away.

Step five in sports injury diagnosis: Take a medical history and perform physical examination

The next stage in diagnosis is taking a medical history from the patient so doctors can get an idea on what may have caused their pain and whether it has happened before or if there are any preexisting conditions like arthritis, diabetes etc… 

The doctor should also ask what type of sports they play because sometimes certain activities put you at risk for additional injuries with things like rotator cuff tears while playing soccer. 

During this step of diagnosis the doctor will also perform a physical examination to see how much range of motion they still have, whether or not there is swelling in their joint which might mean arthritis, and if pain persists. 

There are certain tests that may need to be done such as MRIs for knees when trying to identify cartilage tears or other ligament damage while checking out joints like shoulders because it would help determine what type of treatment needs to happen next.

Step six in sports injury diagnosis: Referral to an orthopedic specialist needed

If symptoms don’t show improvement within about six weeks then referral may be necessary so that the patient can get more specialized care from an orthopedic specialist. They often specialize in disorders such as fractures, spinal cord injury etc… and can help determine the best treatment plan for a patient.

Step seven in sports injury diagnosis: Test reflexes and sensation

Physical Therapy For Sport Injury Cases
Physical Therapy For Sport Injury Cases

Reflexes can be tested with a doctor using either an ice cube or cotton ball to see if there is any response from the patient; this would indicate something like nerve damage. 

They could also pinch their skin (gently!) at different points, which will test pain receptors as well as muscle spasms and inflammation in order to determine whether or not those areas were injured during sports activities. 

Test reflexes and sensation are to check for nerve damage that can occur with trauma, cancer or certain infections, which would require urgent intervention from the medical team. If this is normal then it’s okay but if abnormal it means very different things in these three scenarios: injury versus tumor/cancer vs infection.

Step eight in sports injury diagnosis: Follow up after the patient has left care


The doctor will also ask how they have been feeling and if there are any symptoms that seem to be worsening in order to follow up on their progress and make sure everything is going well before they leave treatment.

If you’re able to, arrange a follow-up in six weeks time and if they have had surgery be sure to contact them within 24 hours post injury – just something as simple as checking their pain level can make all the difference.

If you’re a healthcare professional or an athlete, it’s important to know how to diagnose and treat sport injuries. Click here if you have more questions about sports injuries. For more information about treatment options such as rehabilitation therapy visit our blog today!


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