Acute or Chronic? Sports Injuries and Imaging

Diving for a ball. Sliding into home. Taking a hard tackle.

The only thing more exciting than watching a game is playing in it.

But the characteristics of a sports game that make it more exciting—speed, energy, risk-taking—are the same as those that make it more dangerous to athletes.

Sports injuries is a growing field in medicine, one that tackles the unique needs of high-performing bodies that are regularly pushed to their limits.

To effectively treat your sports injuries, your physician relies on medical imaging to get a clear picture of what’s happening in your body. A detailed, easy-to-read image interpreted by an experienced radiologist contributes a lot to your diagnosis—and treatment plan.


There are two types of sports injuries that imaging can help with:

1. Acute

Acute injuries happen suddenly, like when a knee turns a way it shouldn’t, when a bone is broken, or a muscle is pulled. Pain is sharp and immediate.

Common acute injuries include:

  • Ankle sprain
  • Hamstring strain
  • ACL tear
  • Dislocations
  • Groin pull

2. Chronic

Chronic injuries, while more common than acute, may be harder to detect. They are the result of overuse of a body part, like a tennis player’s “tennis elbow” or persistent knee pain in a runner.

One study estimates that up to 60% of “overuse” injuries are related to training errors.

The danger of chronic injury is that the pain is low and may be only occasional, so the athlete may ignore it and continue to play.

Common chronic injuries include:

  • Tennis elbow
  • Stress fracture
  • Achilles tendinitis
  • Shin splints


Imaging and Treatment

Sometimes imaging may be required right away. Other times your physician may recommend home care or rehabilitation (like Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation), and if there is no improvement, imaging may be the next step.

The first line of imaging may be an X-ray, which is great for seeing problems with bones and joints. An X-ray may be ordered to confirm a diagnosis or ensure there are no other issues.

If a diagnosis is uncertain, or the injury involves soft tissues like muscles, tendons, ligaments or organs, a CT, Ultrasound or MRI may be the next step.