Common Basketball Injuries and What to Do When They Happen to You

Kobe Bryant injury
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

If you've ever played basketball - for a school team, in a rec league, on the playground - odds are you've gotten hurt at some point. It's the nature of the sport - spend a lot of time with your arms outstretched, reaching and shooting and you're liable to develop tendinitis in a shoulder. All the running and jumping is a sure recipe for tendinitis in a knee, and if you misstep when cutting or come down with a rebound and land on someone's foot you're lucky not to sprain an ankle.

So what should you do when you land badly and an ankle starts to swell? Or you try to intercept a pass and jam a finger? We got some advice from Dr. Alexis Colvin, Assistant Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York on common basketball injuries and how to deal with them.

Hurt Shoulder

Basketball involves a lot of motions with arms extended over the head – shooting jump shots, attempting to block said shots, reaching and positioning for rebounds, hanging on the rim after a dunk... actually, I have no experience with that last one. Over time, those activities can cause the tendons in the shoulder joint to become irritated and inflamed, which is the textbook definition of tendinitis.

Do I Have Tendinitis?

If you feel pain during overhead activities – reaching, even brushing your hair – there’s a good chance that you’ve got tendinitis. Most of the time, mild tendinitis will heal on its own… if you let it. “You don’t need to see a physician right away unless there are symptoms like numbness or tingling,” says Dr. Colvin. Avoid the activity that caused the problem in the first place, rest, and use anti-inflammatory medication.

Numbness or tingling can be a sign of nerve damage – in that case, consult a doctor right away. The best way to prevent tendinitis in the shoulder – and anywhere else, really – is to strengthen the muscles of the joint. Dr. Colvin stresses overall health and conditioning as one of the best ways to prevent injury.

Is My Shoulder Dislocated?

A dislocation of the shoulder is a much more serious injury, typically resulting from a significant force or trauma. If you take that sort of hit, see a doctor right away.

Jammed Finger

Happens all the time... try to intercept a pass but mistime your reach, and instead of catching the ball with the palm of your hand, it hits the tip of an outstretched finger, jamming the digit back in towards your hand.

This is an injury that can be more serious than you’d think, Dr. Colvin cautions. While you may not have a broken bone, a jamming a finger can cause tendon damage, and tendon damage is much easier to treat if it is treated quickly.

Tendons are similar to rubber bands, tough fibers that connect your muscles to your skeleton. When damaged, they can lose elasticity, or even “curl up” like a rubber band snapped after stretching too far, and that can make treatment and recovery a much more difficult proposition. If you jam your finger and it swells, resist the urge to tape two fingers together and keep playing. Go get an X-Ray.

Note to the Married Guys

Having a swollen finger gets a lot more complicated if you’re wearing a ring. This happens enough that my brother – an athletic trainer – carries a “ring cutter” in his bag ‘o tricks. Take off the wedding band before you play ball.

Hurt Knee

The running and jumping involved in a game of basketball – especially when played on hard outdoor surfaces like concrete and asphalt – can lead to tendinitis in the knees. Patellar tendinitis – inflammation of the band of tissue that connects the kneecap (patella) to the shin – is particularly common among basketball players, and is often referred to as “jumper’s knee.” As with other forms of mild tendinitis, this can usually be treated with rest and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication.

Preventing “Jumper’s Knee”

Patellar tendinitis is usually brought on by over-use. One of the best ways to prevent it is to cross-train, mixing in lower-impact activities like swimming, biking or working on an elliptical trainer on non-basketball days.

Strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee joint can help prevent jumper’s knee. Dr. Colvin recommends exercises that elongate the quadriceps muscles – “eccentric” quad exercises – as particularly helpful.

Tendinitis and Kids

Younger basketball players often develop patellar tendinitis. But for kids, front-of-knee pain can also indicate a more serious issue relating to the growth plates in the knee joint. “Kids shouldn’t have joint pain,” says Dr. Colvin. Young players feeling the symptoms of knee tendinitis should be checked by a doctor.

Ligament Damage

Sports fans are all familiar with the dreaded three-letter initials associated with more serious knee injuries – ACL, MCL, and PCL. Those three – the Anterior Cruciate, Medial Collateral, and Posterior Cruciate Ligaments – provide stability to the knee joint.

Damage to those ligaments usually involves some sort of trauma and will cause a great deal of swelling. You may also experience the feeling that your knee will “give out” if you try to put any weight on the affected leg. Obviously, these symptoms require a trip to the doctor.

Turned Ankle

The sprained ankle might be the most common injury at all levels of basketball. Jump for a rebound or layup, land on another player’s foot, turn the ankle – it’s more or less inevitable. Most minor ankle sprains will heal nicely on their own. But it might be a good idea to seek treatment, says Dr. Colvin. If you don’t allow a sprain to heal fully and correctly, you’ll risk further or repeated injury.

Also worth noting – there are several degrees of an ankle sprain. If you have a lot of swelling or feel like you can’t bear weight on the affected leg, or if you feel numbness or a tingling sensation, see a doctor. Significant swelling and the inability to bear weight can indicate a more severe sprain, while numbness or tingling may mean nerve damage.

Metatarsal Fracture

The same mechanism that can lead to sprained ankles can also cause fractures of the metatarsal bones – most often, the fifth metatarsal, which runs from the mid-foot to the base of the small toe. This injury has plagued a number of NBA big men, including Yao Ming and, most recently, the Nets’ Brook Lopez.

This injury feels a lot like a sprained ankle, Dr. Colvin explained, but the pain extends down into the foot and is noticeable because it won’t allow you to bear weight. Pros like Lopez and Yao often opt for surgery to correct metatarsal fractures, but going under the knife isn’t always necessary or even recommended for weekend warriors. Many heal nicely with a cast or similar immobilization.

How to Prevent Basketball Injuries

Dr. Colvin offered several other general tips for avoiding injuries when playing basketball:

  • Get in shape. Being in good overall shape will help to prevent many of the aches and pains associated with playing basketball - or any sport.
  • Cross-train. Basketball is a high-impact activity. It's good to mix in lower-impact forms of exercise like biking and swimming to improve overall conditioning and lessen the risk of injury.
  • Don't overdo it. Many injuries come from over-use of particular joints and movements. The body needs rest to recover from exercise.
  • Don't neglect your core. The muscles of your abdomen and back provide stability for all other activities. Keeping a strong core can help prevent injury to every other part of your body.
  • Be aware of the other players. Many of the "bump and bruise" type injuries sustained while playing basketball are caused by players that don't exercise good body control. (Think Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. Watch out for them.)