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Which injuries require immediate medical attention?

Many sports injuries can initially be treated by the person stopping their activity and resting before evaluating whether it will respond to self-care in the form of the RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, elevation) or whether professional help is needed. In certain cases, however, an injury can be so severe that it is necessary to seek medical attention immediately. Prompt medical intervention may prevent the loss of function or, in severe situations, the loss of life.

Signs That Emergency Care Is Needed

If the person has an obviously broken bone or a joint that is dislocated or deformed, they should seek emergency hospital care. Other signs that medical care is urgently needed include the inability to take any pressure or support any weight on the area affected, severe pain that is becoming worse and any tingling, numbness or paralysis.

If the person has difficulty breathing or their respirations are unsteady, they need emergency medical care. If they are noticeably pale, appear to be confused or disorientated or have a weak or unsteady pulse, they should be taken to an emergency department immediately.

Major Injuries Requiring Immediate Medical Attention


Head injuries can cause swelling and bleeding in the brain and can be life-threatening or result in brain damage in severe cases. Immediate medical attention should be sought when the person has certain symptoms, including severe headache, a headache that is worsening, vomiting, convulsions, seizures or slurred speech. Other indications that it is necessary to see a doctor quickly include the person becoming agitated, confused or restless or if they are sleepy and have difficulty waking. Weakness, numbness and decreased coordination are also signs that a person may be concussed. Concussion is not always easy to diagnose and symptoms do not always appear immediately, so whenever any head injury occurs the person should be observed carefully for any changes.

Severe Burns

Although minor burns can heal without professional attention, any burn that appears to be serious should be treated immediately to avoid permanent damage to the tissues. If you are unsure of the depth of the burn, it is always wise to err on the side of caution and get medical advice as soon as you can.

The area where the burn has occurred is also relevant to the treatment needed, and if the eyes, ears, hands, feet, genitals or any major joints are involved, medical assistance should be sought as soon as possible.

Hand Injuries

Injuries to the hands can cause lasting disabilities if they are not treated promptly. Any hand injury that causes numbness, loss of movement or loss of strength needs immediate medical help. In cases of amputation or if there is severe bleeding, it is obvious that emergency treatment is needed, as it is in the case of any bones, tendons or underlying structures being exposed under the injury.

Other indications that immediate medical attention may be needed include severe pain, obvious deformities and any signs of infection.

Eye Injuries

It is natural to seek immediate medical assistance if there is any obvious injury to the eye, but even when symptoms are less evident they can also indicate that there is a serious problem, such as a detached retina, that needs immediate treatment. The person with the eye injury should get medical attention straight away if there are any dark, bright or cloudy areas in their vision, as this could be a symptom of a serious condition.

Cuts and Lacerations

Not all lacerations require immediate medical attention, but serious puncture wounds or cuts can result in severe bleeding that may need medical intervention to stop it. Nerve damage can also occur as a result of lacerations, and medical treatment may be needed to preserve or restore function. Some lacerations can leave unsightly scars, and medical attention may be needed to minimise these and improve their appearance. Medical help should also be sought if any foreign bodies or materials have been introduced into the wound.

Other Injuries That May Need Immediate Medical Intervention

You should see a doctor if you have even a minor laceration or wound that breaks the skin if you have not had a tetanus vaccination or booster shot in the past five years or you are not sure if your vaccinations are up to date.

After various injuries that are not, in themselves, serious, you may need to see a doctor immediately if any of the following symptoms become evident:

  • Persistent chest pain, shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Loss of balance, fainting, weakness or paralysis
  • Difficulty speaking, confusion, drowsiness or headache

Certain other symptoms that may occur following an injury also indicate that medical treatment may be needed. These include swelling or pain in the testicles and any intestinal bleeding that may be evident in the stools. This could indicate an undiagnosed internal injury that requires treatment.

Palpitations or irregular heartbeats should be checked out by a medical professional in case there is any serious underlying condition that needs treatment.

Any changes in vision or problems with perception should be reported to a medical professional, as should any changes in level of consciousness or seizures, as these could be linked to a previously undiagnosed injury. Obvious problems such as uncontrolled bleeding, dislocations or fractures that occur at some time following an injury also need urgent medical attention.

Although the majority of sports injuries will recover with self-treatment, it is important that serious injuries receive appropriate medical attention as soon as possible to prevent the condition from worsening. If you are unsure whether immediate medical attention is needed, it is better to get the opinion of a health professional than to wait and see whether the symptoms improve. This is particularly important in the case of concussion, which can sometimes be much more serious than it first appears.