The start of the football season is an exciting time, one filled with dreams of leading your amateur league team to glory, getting spotted by a scout and signed by a top club, then firing England to a World Cup win by scoring a hat-trick in the final against the Germans.
But all of these possibilities – and they are all possible, you’re just not dreaming hard enough – can be wrecked in a moment if you get injured. For advice on how to avoid succumbing to the most common football injuries, we spoke to Damian McClelland, musculoskeletal services clinical director for Bupa UK.
Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury
“The ACL is one of four ligaments that help keep your knee stable,” says McClelland.
“If you twist it too far it can become injured. This is common in footballers and usually occurs during slide tackles or when you change direction quickly while running. Depending on the severity, this injury could leave you on the bench for up to 12 months.”
“If you injure your ACL you will most likely feel pain, swelling and instability in your knee,” says McClelland.
“At the time of the injury you may also feel or hear a popping or snapping in the knee.”
Nothing causes an involuntary shudder quite like the phrase “popping or snapping in the knee”.
“The injury may be treated in some people with physiotherapy,” says McClelland.
“However, if it’s more severe it may require surgery. ACL reconstruction surgery usually involves taking a piece of tendon (from your knee tendon or hamstring) to replace the damaged ligament.”
All of the above – especially the bit about popping – will have made it very clear that it’s wise to do everything possible to avoid ACL injuries, so listen up.
“Work on strengthening your leg muscles, in particular the hamstrings, quadriceps and other muscles around your knees,” says McClelland.
“Make sure you warm up fully before playing and wear the right footwear to support your feet and ankles.”
“The menisci are two C-shaped cartilages that cushion and protect the knee joints during impact,” says McClelland.
“An athlete typically suffers a torn meniscus when they take a blow to the outside of the knee (like in a bad tackle) or by some combination of bending the knee joint, twisting, pivoting or changing directions.”
“The signs of a meniscal tear are swelling and stiffness in the knee,” says McClelland, “but with large meniscal tears the knee may become locked so you can’t fully straighten the knee. MRI scans can show an accurate image of the injury so your physiotherapist can see the severity.”
“If you have a minor tear, you may experience a bit of pain and swelling for two to three weeks,” says McClelland.
“During this time it’s best to put ice on the knee and wrap it in a compression bandage to reduce swelling.
“In severe tears, pieces of the torn meniscus can move into the joint space, increasing the risk of your knee locking. Surgery is not always necessary, but your physiotherapist or musculoskeletal specialist will be able to advise you on this.
“Usually footballers are out of action for between six to eight weeks after tearing their meniscus. However, it depends on the severity of the injury. If you have surgery, you could be out for up to 12 months.”
“Work on strengthening your leg muscles as they help to stabilise your knee, reducing the risk of injury,” says McClelland.
“An achilles tendon rupture is when you tear the tissue that connects your calf muscles to your heel bone,” says McClelland. “You can either partially or completely tear the tendon.”
Who’s ready for some more snapping and popping? No-one?
“If you have a complete tear you may hear a snapping or popping sound. Sometimes it can be quite loud,” says McClelland, chillingly.
“You’ll also feel a sudden, sharp pain in your heel or calf. Ruptures are usually caused by a heavy landing on your foot.”
Once again, snapping and popping means a long time on the sidelines.
“Usually footballers are off the field for at least three to four months, longer if the injury is more serious,” says McClelland.
“For less severe injuries you may be put into a plaster cast or boot for six to eight weeks, followed by physiotherapy. If the injury is more serious you may require surgery where the tendon is stitched back together.”
Warm up people, for the love of God warm up.
“You can reduce your risk of injuring your achilles by warming up fully before exercise and warming down afterwards,” says McClelland.
Hamstring Strain Or Tear
“The hamstring muscles run along the back of your thigh from the hip to the knee joint and can become susceptible to injury when fatigued,” says McClelland.
“During a football match the hamstring muscles can be forcibly stretched beyond their limits, which can result in a tear.”
Symptoms And Treatment
Hamstring injuries are graded from one (minor strain) to three (full tear). A minor strain shouldn’t hold you back much, but a grade three tear… well, let’s just say the word popping makes an unwelcome reappearance.
“If you have a grade one muscle strain your hamstring may feel tender and can be a bit swollen, but you should still be able to move and carry on with your activities as usual,” says McClelland.
“If you have a grade two hamstring injury it’s likely to be more painful. You may notice a bruise and swelling over the affected area and lose some strength in the muscle.
“A grade three injury is usually very painful and you’ll have a lot of swelling and bruising. You might feel a popping sensation at the time of injury and you might have a lump at either end of the muscle. Usually football players are out of action for a few months or more with grade three injuries.”
“To prevent a hamstring tear make sure you warm up correctly before running onto the football field,” says McClelland.
Lower Back Pain
Compared to the other, mostly horrific, injuries on this list, lower back pain might seem less serious, but it’s still something you should do your best to avoid.
“Most athletes will have minor back pain sometime during their life,” says McClelland.
“While playing football pressure can be put on your back during fast, sudden movements and twisting.”
Symptom And Treatment
“If your back hurts on the football field, head to the bench and rest,” says McClelland.
“If it feels comfortable to do so, try doing a few back stretches and keep mobile. If the pain persists, see your doctor.”
“Make sure you warm up fully before the game,” says McClelland, “and when you’re not on the field, work on strengthening your back muscles and improving your core stability. This will help to support the spinal column. Exercises such as Pilates can help with this.”
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.