Sports' Big 5 Upper Extremity Injuries

Treating hand, wrist, arm, elbow and shoulder injuries in athletes

Posted 4/29/2022

When you've got an injured athlete, what's your move to get them back in the game?

For some sports organizations, athletic trainers and team doctors are on deck to treat most sports injuries. But there's a variety of health professionals who help players get their pitch, swing or throw back.

Did you know that occupational therapists play key roles in athletic injury treatment? With all the throwing, lobbing, pitching and twisting that comes with playing sports, the need for therapy is big.

Upper extremity injuries in athletes are common, sidelining them from play. As many as one in four injuries are to the hand or wrist.

close up of young male athlete with a forearm cast with sports team behind him

Occupational therapists (OTs) specialize in these types of injuries and more. Their goal is to help the athlete recover and safely return to play.

How occupational therapists help athletes

Occupational therapists (OTs) work with all kinds of individuals to overcome physical setbacks from illness or injury. For athletes, this is key for a return to play after injury.

Just as athletes are unique in their play with their sport, injuries are unique to them. For example, athletic injuries can occur in all ages, from Little Leaguers to Silver Sneakers. Treating a specific type of injury, like a broken arm, will be different for a patient who's 7 and another who's 70.

An OT's role is to assess the impact of injury and the limitations it causes.

Therapy is then based on the skills the individual needs to recover to overcome those limitations.

OTs are specialists in assessing the impact of injury on many parts of the body's framework such as:

  • Bones
  • Muscles
  • Tendons
  • Ligaments
  • Nerves

The level of an injury can vary from acute to chronic.

For example, an acute injury is sudden, like breaking a wrist.

A chronic injury is one that happens over time, like tendonitis of the wrist. Tendonitis builds up after long periods of overuse, doing the same movements over and over, like serving a tennis ball.

Whatever the injury, OTs are highly-skilled in treating a variety of injuries.

For the weekend warrior or a pro athlete, your path to recovery from a sports injury will be unique. And just like the role you play on the court, the track or the field, you'll play a major league role in your healing process.

Here's some inside baseball on what that will look like.

Expect your doctor and OT to talk with you about your goals for recovery. This is key for planning your way back to play and any restrictions you'll need to follow.

Your local physical therapy center will be your home base for therapy sessions. This is to ensure your safety during treatment.

Your therapist will guide you in proper movement and the use of any equipment to make sure you are doing each exercise right. This helps improve your range of motion and stay on track for healing.

Your therapy may include strength training with resistance bands or weights to improve dexterity and build strength.

If your therapy includes doing exercise at home between scheduled appointments, you may benefit from having your OT take a look at your personal equipment and how you use it. They can spot if it's appropriate for your use and goals for healing. They can also see if you're using it right and, if not, help you to correct it.

Each step of your treatment is planned to help you heal from the injury and get back to your goals.

Brace yourself for orthotic devices

For serious injury or bad breaks that take you out of play, your OT may want to restrict the motion or movement of your injury to help with healing.

The terms – splint, brace, wrap or cast – are pretty common, so, it's likely you've heard them before. In medical terms, though, you might hear your therapist refer to them as an orthotic device or orthosis.

The bottom line, whatever the device looks like, is that it will be fairly rigid or stiff to keep a joint or broken bone in place as it heals.

Orthotics can be made and fitted for:

  • Fingers
  • Wrist/hand
  • Elbow
  • Shoulder

For a less serious level of injury, there are a host of orthoses we can provide to support and protect to keep you in the game, no matter your game!

These upper extremity orthoses can be fit for thumb, fingers, hand, wrist, forearm and shoulder.

These are custom-fitted and made onsite at our center so you can leave your appointment with what you need.

Your therapist will ensure it fits right for comfort, support and protection.

At the ‘core’ of your injury

Your core is a complex series of muscles extending far beyond your abs. So if you’re thinking “six-pack” or “washboard” abs, think bigger!

The core is made up of 20-plus muscles at the center of the body. It includes major and minor muscles of the stomach, hips and low back. They all work in tandem, making the core part of nearly every movement we make.

3D frontal view male core muscles anatomy

Having a strong core (diaphragm, abs, glute and pelvic muscles) and good dynamic balance plays a large part in athletic activities. Weakness in either of these areas may be flagged by your therapist for you to get a movement screen assessment.

The core helps:

  • Stabilize movement
  • Transfer force from one extremity to another
  • Initiate movement

If your core strength is weak, the strength and coordination of your upper extremity isn't at full potential.

Occupational therapists who work with patients on upper extremity recovery consider the whole body during treatment. Your OT will work on improving core strength as well as leg and hip strength as it applies to your sport.

The power of occupational therapy

Getting back to a well-loved sport or activity is important to anyone who's sidelined by injury.

It doesn't matter if you’re competing at an elite level or just want to retain an active lifestyle to get the benefits of occupational therapy. Our OTs know how to create a rehabilitation plan to meet your goals.

Our occupational and hand therapists can help you:

  • Avoid injury
  • Perform better
  • Recover from injuries quickly and safely

We're here for you. Our proven therapies, along with compassionate care, offer the best outcome for your injury.

Take a look at all the sports medicine and injury prevention services we offer. Then click on any of our pages' blue Request an appointment buttons and come see us!