Nonsurgical Treatments for Sports Injuries

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?

What are nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries?

Sports injuries are the result of trauma from playing a sport, exercising, or participating in other recreational activities. The term usually means you have some sort of orthopedic injury, which is an injury to the musculoskeletal system. This includes bones, muscles, joints, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissues.

Nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries aim to heal the injury without surgery. Here are some examples of nonsurgical orthopedic treatments:

  • Electrical stimulation is a form of pain management. It uses pads on the skin to deliver painless electrical pulses to the painful area. It includes both TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) and NMES (neuromuscular electrical stimulation). TENS targets nerves to block pain receptors. NMES stimulates muscle tissue to strengthen it and relieve pain.

  • Prolotherapy injections are a form of alternative, or complementary medicine. It involves injecting an irritant—usually a sugar solution—into a joint or around a ligament or tendon. Theoretically, the irritant stimulates growth of connective tissue. The treatment usually consists of up to 20 injections at monthly sessions for several months.

  • RICE is a home treatment for a variety of injuries. It stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation. RICE is often effective at relieving symptoms and healing minor musculoskeletal injuries.

  • Spinal decompression therapy is closely related to traction. It uses motorized pulling forces to stretch the spine. Unlike traditional traction, it uses alternating periods of stretching and resting.

  • Steroid injection uses corticosteroids, which are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs. It usually involves injecting the drug directly into a joint. Cortisone is a type of corticosteroid, so people commonly call this treatment a cortisone shot or cortisone injection.

  • Viscosupplementation restores joint lubrication with an artificial joint fluid. This can relieve inflammation and pain in a joint. The fluid in the injection is hyaluronic acid. There are two main sources for the substance. Labs can program bacteria to make it or they can harvest it from rooster or chicken combs. Because of the latter source, you may hear people call viscosupplementation with hyaluronic acid a rooster comb injection.

Why are nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries performed?

In most cases, doctors recommend nonsurgical treatments first to treat sports injuries. Your doctor may suggest this approach for a variety of injuries and symptoms including:

Who performs nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries?

Sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons commonly use nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries. Sports medicine doctors specialize in preventing and managing sports-related injuries. They do not perform surgery. Orthopedic surgeons treat, prevent and rehabilitate bone and joint problems. They use both medical and surgical approaches to manage these types of problems.

Both sports medicine and orthopedic specialists usually work with other healthcare providers to deliver treatment. This includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, and athletic trainers. Chiropractors also care for patients with sports injuries.

How are nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries performed?

Nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries are typically office-based or outpatient procedures. The specific steps will depend on the treatment. Some require local anesthesia to numb a joint or small area. You may also need to take it easy after you get home to thoroughly rest the injured tissue. Others do not require any anesthesia and you can resume activities right afterwards.

What are the risks and potential complications of nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries?

The potential risks of nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries depend on the specific procedure. Some carry no risk or very little risk, such as RICE and electrical stimulation. Injections penetrate the skin, so there is always a slight risk of infection or bleeding. Tenderness, bruising and swelling at the injection site is common. Repeated steroid injections can eventually lead to weakened tendons, ligaments, bones and cartilage. Talk with your doctor before your treatment and ask about your specific risks.

The best way to reduce your risk of complications is to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. This includes activity and lifestyle restrictions before and after treatment. Notify your doctor immediately if you have concerns, such as bleeding or an increase in pain.

How do I prepare for a nonsurgical treatment for a sports injury?

Unlike orthopedic treatments involving surgery, most nonsurgical sports injury treatments do not involve specific preparation or testing. However, you should make sure all your healthcare providers have your complete medical history. This includes chronic conditions, allergies, and medications. When listing medications, include prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamin supplements. If you smoke, stop as soon as possible to help the healing process. And be sure to ask your doctor if you should arrange a ride home or have help once you get home.

Questions to ask your doctor

Making a list of questions can help you remember them during your appointments before treatment. Questions you may want to ask your doctor include:

  • Why do I need the treatment you are suggesting? Is it based on my specific diagnosis?

  • Are there any other options for treating my condition?

  • How long will the treatment take? When will I be able to go home?

  • What restrictions will I have after the treatment? When can I expect to return to work and other activities?

  • How often will I need to repeat the treatment?

  • What kind of assistance will I need at home? Will I need a ride home?

  • How should I take my regular medications?

  • What are my options if the treatment fails to resolve the problem?

  • How should I contact you? When should I see you in follow-up? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.

What can I expect after a nonsurgical treatment for a sports injury?

Knowing what to expect makes it easier to plan and prepare for a successful recovery. Most nonsurgical treatments involve little to no recovery time. However, you may have tenderness at the injection site if you have an injection. Follow your doctor’s instructions for rest and using ice packs afterwards. Your doctor may also recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever.

When should I call my doctor?

It’s important to keep your follow up appointments after your treatment. You should contact your doctor’s office if you have questions between appointments. Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Increased pain or pain that changes in any way

  • New or unexplained symptoms

  • Redness, warmth or drainage at the injection site

  • Unexpected bleeding

Many people have success with nonsurgical treatments for sports injuries. Some provide quick relief while others take several weeks for maximum effect. Ask your doctor what to expect with your treatment. If you do not find relief with these treatments, your doctor may suggest that you think about surgery. Before you make the decision, consider getting a second opinion. Another viewpoint can give you confidence about your ultimate decision.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 26
View All Sports Medicine Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Alternative Methods to Help Manage Pain After Orthopaedic Surgery. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  2. Daniel DM. Non-surgical Spinal Decompression Therapy: Does the Scientific Literature Support Efficacy Claims Made in the Advertising Media? Chiropr Osteopat. 2007;15:7.
  3. Electrical Stimulation for Knee Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  4. Hyaluronic Acid Injections for Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  5. Prolotherapy for Knee Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  6. Prolotherapy: Solution to Low Back Pain? Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
  7. Sports Injuries. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
  8. Use of Corticosteroids in Osteoarthritis. Arthritis Foundation.
  9. Viscosupplementation Treatment for Knee Arthritis. American Academy for Orthopaedic Surgeons.
  10. What Is a Sports Medicine Specialist? American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.