Got a niggle? You might want to get that checked out…

lady runner stretching out niggle

With sports seasons upon us, now’s the time to make sure you’re in tip-top shape for training and games. That means taking care of any old or new injuries to make sure they don’t become longer-term issues that prevent you from getting out onto the field.

What is a niggle?

In order to understand niggles, we need to understand injuries. In the research, injuries are defined as “any physical complaint”, that is, anything that feels “off”, no matter how mild or serious. Injuries can then be divided into two types:

  • Time-loss (TL) injuries: Injuries that result in an inability to participate in training and/or games
  • Non-time-loss (nTL) injuries: Injuries that do not affect the player’s ability to participate in training and/or games

A niggle is the lay term for a nTL injury – something that’s noticeable and “doesn’t feel quite right”, but isn’t severe enough to stop someone from continuing with their usual activities. This could be an unusual amount of muscle tightness, stiffness in a body part or joint, or any other sensation that isn’t usual for the person.

Why do niggles matter?

When faced with a niggle, many athletes may choose to continue training and playing, especially if the affected area doesn’t feel worse when doing so. There are many reasons for this, including not wanting to let the team down, pressure from coaches, feeling healthy enough to play, or having an important upcoming event (e.g., games, trials). Whatever the reason, having a niggle isn’t always a big enough reason to stop!

However, a study by Whalan et al. (2019) showed that soccer players that reported niggles but continued training and playing were three to seven times more likely to experience a time-loss injury in the next seven days, compared to players that didn’t report them. So whilst players without niggles had only had a 6% time-loss injury rate, players with niggles had a 18%-42% chance of a time-loss injury within the next week.

The relationship between niggles and time-loss injuries was especially strong for knee and hamstring injuries – over 90% of both knee and hamstring time-loss injuries that happened were preceded by a niggle in the same area. Interestingly, the researchers found that some time-loss injuries were preceded by niggles in different body parts (e.g., ankle niggle and later hamstring strain), indicating that issues in one area of the body may result in an increased vulnerability elsewhere!

What should I do about a niggle?

Having a niggle doesn’t always guarantee a worse injury on the horizon, but it does increase the chances of one happening, especially if the niggle affects the hamstring or knee (based on the above study). So whilst niggles may not always require treatment (especially mild ones), having them checked out by an experienced physiotherapist may not be a bad idea!

Testing of the body part affected by the niggle as well as other areas may help reveal any other deficits that could increase risk of injury. In such an assessment, your physiotherapist may do the following:

  • Palpation, or feeling around the area of the niggle
  • Range of motion testing
  • Strength testing
  • Movement testing to see if certain movements aggravate the niggle
  • Other special tests

By thoroughly assessing the body, your physiotherapist can then let you know if you can continue training and playing without worry, or if you should pay more attention to the niggle – it could save you from having to warm the bench!

If you’ve got a niggle somewhere and want to make sure you stay healthy for sport, give us a call on 1300 738 609!

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