The Secret Behind Managing Injuries in the NFL

I get asked about NFL injuries almost every day..…and I love it because NFL injuries have been a huge part of my life for over 26 years.  The injury questions come from every direction; workout buddies, physical therapy patients, college friends, Twitter followers or new friends I meet at an airport or restaurant.

“How do the (NFL) teams handle all the injuries?”

“What’s the difference between a regular ankle sprain and a high ankle sprain?”

“What the hell is a sports hernia?”

“Doesn’t it seems like everyone (hn the NFL) is getting hurt this year?”

I don’t want to speculate on the injury #’s or how they compare to years past.  But I can tell you that the ability for football fans to keep in touch with the medical facts about their favorite team and fantasy football players has never been easier.  Just think about the sheer volume of injury/medical information available online and on social media for NFL fans 24/7?!  It’s almost overwhelming.

Simplifying NFL Injuries

There’s never a shortage of injury info on NFL players.  One of the best parts of my new career since retiring from the NFL is taking the mountains of confusing sports medicine info available and simplifying it for the every day football fan to understand.

Here’s a few examples of how an NFL athletic training staff thinks when a player is injured in a practice or game:

When a Player Is Down

Resting Position – How an injured player is positioned on the field can tell you allot about how serious the injury is and what body parts are involved.

How He Moves/Doesn’t Move – If an injured player remains on the field and is not moving, the reasons can be as simple as the injured player is scared to move or as serious as a catastrophic injury.  On the serious side, the injury could involve the player’s head, spinal cord and/or heart.  Whenever possible, I always asked a conscious player who is laying on the field being evaluated for a potentially serious injury to pump their ankles and hands to send a positive message to obviously concerned family, friends and teammates watching from afar.

Priorities – When evaluating a potentially serious injured player, the emergency priority are consistent:

  1. Assume the worst injury and  stabilizing the player to avoid making the injury worse.
  2. Complete the entire evaluation regardless of the scoreboard, the player or the coach.
  3. Utilize the many medical specialists available to the medical staff to thoroughly evaluate the player.

Return to Play With Football Injury

Risk vs Reward – Is the reward of this player returning to the game worth the risks associated with the injury?

Protect Thy Self – The #1 job that a player has when he steps back onto the field is to protect himself. Regardless if he can run 50 mph and he’s “able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” (a quote for the Superman fans in the house), if he can’t protect himself, he doesn’t belong on the field.

Solo – A player needs to show he can perform his position moves and drills all by himself at 75+% speed on the sideline before you can expect him to do it at full speed on a game field with 21 other players around him.

Rehab Started 10 Minutes Ago

Control Swelling – Keeping a recently injured joint or muscle from swelling is a key step to getting an athlete back to full speed ASAP.  Ice early and often.

Pain is Your Friend – Elite athletes aren’t afraid of pain.  They understand that pain is telling them something and they are smart enough to listen to their pain and make the necessary changes.  That is a wise and healthy response compared to a too-common practice in many communities of taking pain medicine and aborting all activities in an effort to completely avoid pain.

I strongly suggest you adopt Option A for your pain management plan.


Author: Mike Ryan

After 26 seasons as a full-time certified athletic trainer and registered physical therapist in the National Football League, Mike Ryan has outstanding first-hand experience. His unique professional and athletic background has sharpened his skills in the arts of sports injury management, elite rehabilitation, performance enhancement and injury prevention. Mike is now taking his experience to mainstream America. His mission is simple: Sports Medicine advice that is easy to use and brings fast results. Learn more about Mike Ryan

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