When is it Okay to Return to Play?
As fall sports heat up, we begin to see a lot of injuries. The first question players ask after we confirm their injury is, “how soon before I can play again?”
Whether it’s a junior high schooler, college athlete or professional player, this question is asked with the same passion and underlying conviction to do whatever it takes to get back in as soon as possible. This is their sport and their heart is all in – despite the injured limb and challenge it now presents.
As an orthopedic physician who wants to ensure the best outcome in their recovery and a team doctor who understands this drive distinct in athletes, it’s important to develop the right treatment plan – some of which might entail permission for immediate return to play.
While this may seem counterintuitive, certain hand and upper extremity fractures once stabilized and placed in a cast are fine for an immediate resumption of play. This is particularly true of the younger athlete. Some of the types of fractures allowing athletes to return quickly back to the game despite their cast or splint include certain finger and distal radius fractures and ligament sprains.
While the position on a team will impact the enthusiasm in our recommendation to allow such return to play – linemen with the capability to restrict their hands in a cast verses a receiver or running back more fully engaging their injured limb – many are as capable to play their position with their injury as they were before.
The type of injury is also a determination – stabilized fractures are more likely to be considered for immediate return to play than ligament or tendon tears.
Now, there are some risks for further damage if the injured limb is hit in such a way and the inflexibility of the cast places other vulnerabilities on the uncasted portion of the limb. Other risks include refracture, retear of a tendon or displacement of a fracture.
But, the only way to truly avoid further injury is to sit out of the game until the injury is completely healed. And this is rarely an option for an athlete.
So, we ensure that our patients know everything upfront. And we give them the tools to keep their injured limb as strong as possible – regardless of the decision they make. Continuing to keep the injured limb strong by exercising the muscles and joints around the injury, in conjunction with cardiovascular exercise for overall physical well-being….is key. We remain very involved and ready to make any readjustments we need to the treatment.