Spring is finally here! And when the weather gets warm, people run outside. Then they fall down. Or twist their ankle. Or throw the ball just a little too hard for their own good.

Sports medicine and orthopedic specialists are busy this time of year. “The most common joint injuries I see in the spring and early summer would be patellofemoral syndrome, also known as ‘runner's knee,’ which is an overuse injury of the knee; followed by Achilles tendonitis and ankle sprains; and then probably rotator cuff strains from throwing those baseballs and footballs that were in the closet all winter,” says Dr. Will Mitchell, a SLUCare family and sports medicine physician.

Dr. Scott Kaar, an orthopedic surgeon on staff at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center in the SLUCare Orthopaedic Surgery Clinic, agrees, noting that amateur athletes who are inspired by the advent of spring should take it easy at first. “Warm up before working out,” he advises. “Don’t go from no exercise to a high level without allowing your body to get used to the increased exercise loads. For example, slowly increase running distances over days or a few weeks.”

Although there is no scientific proof that pre-exercise stretching will prevent injury, flexibility is probably beneficial, the physicians say. Kaar recommends carefully incorporating stretches into a warm-up routine instead of attempting to stretch before muscles have the benefit of increased blood flow from some initial activity.

“For example, standing still and reaching to touch your toes (a static stretch) would be less helpful and can even cause microdamage to muscles and tendons,” Kaar says. “Instead, dynamic stretches where the body is in motion or even warming up to an activity such as walking before jogging allows the body to not only gradually increase flexibility, it also allows muscle groups to counter each other and prevent injury.” Dynamic stretching may include walking, lunges, jumping jacks or other movement-based stretches.

The other important thing to remember before bounding outdoors, tennis racquet in-hand, is that your body needs a little time to readjust to intense activity if you’ve been less active through the winter months. “It's important to start slowly when you're getting back into exercise,” Mitchell advises. “I tell my patients who haven't exercised in the last few months, Your brain may remember what it's like to exercise, but your body doesn't. Most injuries come from trying to do too much too soon.”

Even if you follow the advice to warm up and go slow as you re-enter the world of summer sports, injuries can happen. Fortunately, most are not serious and the damage can be reversed. “Any pain beyond mild soreness is a sign of injury that shouldn't be ignored,” Mitchell says. “When that happens, you have to break out the RICE—rest, ice, compression, elevation—and take some ibuprofen or naproxen for a few days. Focus on stretching and core-strength exercises during your down time. If the pain hasn't resolved after two weeks, it's time to see a sports physician.”

With a little precaution and common sense, you can enjoy the benefits of warm-weather activity sans injury. Kaar reminds patients that exercise is important for both physical and mental health. “Just don't overdo it too soon without being smart about it.”

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