Why Athletes Should Consult Doctors (And Not the Web) About Injuries

A physical therapist explains why proper diagnosis and treatment are crucial for recovery

Raise your hand if Google (or your search engine of choice) has ever been your first point of reference when attempting to “diagnose” a sports-related injury.

According to Liz Yerly, a physical therapist, athletic trainer and massage therapist at the Chicago Recovery Room, not surprisingly, this is a growing trend across all healthcare fields.

And while seeking medical advice online isn’t necessarily a bad thing– as long as you’re consulting a reputable source—under certain circumstances, it can certainly lead to some negative consequences.

Yerly said it’s problematic for a few reasons, including the fact that when patients do come in to see her, they’re coming in, as she explained it, “loaded with information.”

“The consumer is coming in loaded with information and pre-determined ideas of their injury, the treatment needed and the overall recovery,” Yerly said. “There has also been a huge growth in blogs, newsletters and social media posts from elite athletes themselves who have thousands of followers. These guys are giving advice as well, providing a play-by-play of their own rehab or injury status, so it's another source of information for the everyday athlete to sort through.”

The worst case scenario that this type of situation usually results in, Yerly explained, is that when a patient does finally approach a doctor or a physical therapist, they’re feeling defeated before they’ve even begun the recovery process. This, she said can certainly effect the treatment outcome.

Another problem with consulting the Internet about injuries: you might not be able to properly diagnose your condition.

“You can't successfully treat an injury if you don't know what you're treating.  So without a definitive diagnosis from a professional, you're just taking a stab in the dark that you are doing things that are in your best interest,” Yerly said. “An example I see often is that people are told to strengthen a certain muscle group to help with injuries, but there is a right way and a wrong way to gain strength during rehab, and many times people head to the gym and end up making things much worse despite having good intentions.”

In her experience, Yerly said that it’s fairly common for patients to come to the office having already researched their situation, or at least what they believe it to be.

“Recently, I saw a patient who was convinced he had tendinitis and had tried every treatment on the web but in the end had a stress fracture,” she explained. “This is a situation where nothing is going to help their bone heal but immobilization and rest.”

Yerly said that had this patient continued trying to self-treat the injury, it could have become a much more serious issue and eventually would have required surgery.

“[Patients are] seeking advice, but are loaded with questions, have set expectations about their situation, and demand outcomes that are sometimes just not realistic or based on false information,” she added.

What’s more, even if you’re able to properly diagnose your injury based on info from the web, Yerly said that executing proper treatment is an “entirely different ballgame.”

“There are often treatment phases when it comes to healing and injuries, and the average consumer cannot possibly determine what stage of healing they are in and where to begin the treatment side of things,” she explained. “They may have the right advice on certain exercises for treating an injury, but those exercises may not be appropriate at every stage of healing.”

According to Yerly, some of the most common injuries that athletes often misdiagnose include overuse injuries like tendinitis and ligament and tendon issues.

“Over-use injuries often times classified as tendinitis can actually be a bone injury or stress fracture which definitely requires imaging and proper immobilization,” she said. “There's also a big difference between ligament injuries and tendon or muscular injuries that can often present with similar pain patterns but require completely different interventions in terms of healing.”

Yerly said that sciatica is also commonly misdiagnosed, but that it’s really more of a symptom that can stem from a variety of other issues, which usually requires skilled testing and compiling a detailed history from the patient in order to implement the proper treatment.

At the end of the day, athletes who want an accurate diagnosis, a proper treatment plan and, most likely, a quicker and safer road to recovery are better off consulting an expert in real life.

The Internet might have a nearly endless amount of easily accessible information, but your healthcare provider has the right information, and you won’t have to spend hours scrolling through forum threads and blog posts to get it.

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