A Former Player's Guide to the 8 Most Painful Injuries in Football
It has been scientifically proven that athletes have a higher tolerance for pain than the average citizen. But even these “highly trained machines” can break down and writhe in pain due to some of the more gruesome and horrific injuries we see week in and week out on the football field.
Even the less serious injuries can deliver quite a painful reaction to some of the toughest guys alive.
There are definitely plenty of painful injuries in football from which to make a list of the most painful. This particular list is based on personal experience, witnessing player reactions and listening to athletes share their own opinions here and there.
An important note to consider is this is not a list focusing on the most serious injuries imaginable, but rather the most painful ones. Sometimes pain and severity don’t directly parallel one another, and sometimes they do.
I also tried to include and consider the difference between immediate/initial pain as the injury happens and the lingering pain that follows. Sometimes the pain of an injury worsens over time, and sometimes an injury can be painful for months or even years. These elements are considered as I list the eight most painful injuries in football.
8. Broken Ribs
I’ve heard many people describe broken ribs as one of the most painful injuries you can get. They say it hurts to breathe, eat, sleep, laugh, sneeze and basically manage the normal day-to-day functions we all take for granted.
Well, I happen to have firsthand experience with this injury and can say with some confidence that this injury is somewhat overrated in terms of pain. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be on this list.
While playing in junior college, I happened to break two of my ribs clean in half on the left side directly at the midpoint between my upper and lower portions, during a practice no less.
I couldn’t remember the point when it happened and I didn’t even miss a single day of practice, let alone a game.
The broken ribs were tender to the touch and caused some discomfort, but there really wasn’t much pain to contend with that would debilitate me.
On the downside, the pain did linger for at least a month while the ribs fused back together.
7. Turf Toe
Turf toe is a highly underestimated injury in terms of pain and its level of debilitation. Although this injury involves such a small portion of the lower extremity, it has destroyed seasons and even careers for many players.
Turf toe is a sprain to the ligaments around the big toe joint, which works mainly as a hinge to allow up-and-down movement to the toe.
The initial pain related to turf toe is not necessarily that intense, relative to the other injuries listed. This is however, one of those injuries that become increasingly more painful as the athlete tries to push through.
More often than not, the player will quickly realize the pain in his toe is far too great, as he’s completely unable to push off on it.
Turf toe makes this list because the pain of this injury is often one that can linger for months and even years. Oftentimes, the pain can become chronic or even arthritic if it’s never given a chance to heal properly.
6. High Ankle Sprain
Of all the injuries I’ve accrued over my 12-plus years of playing football, surprisingly the most painful injury I’ve ever dealt with was the high ankle sprain. Believe it or not, this monster of an injury was the only one capable of taking me out of commission at any point throughout my entire career.
I suffered a high ankle sprain in a close game on a rainy night against Oregon during my junior year at Cal.
While I was holding the point of a block during a stretch play, one of Oregon’s 300-pound offensive linemen fell awkwardly on my leg, causing it to twist outward as my body's momentum carried me in the opposite direction.
I clearly remember the sharp, intense pain that shot up my leg as I fell to the ground. But the initial pain was nowhere near as bad as the pain that set in once the fluid and swelling started to flow into the area. Just as the body's natural adrenaline was wearing off, I was no longer able to put standing pressure on that foot.
However, even that pain was nothing compared to the pain of the next day after the injury had a full night to cool down and tighten up.
High ankle sprains are truly a terrible injury that can often take months to heal before you’re fully capable of changing directions or cutting on that ankle.
In fact, I’ve often heard it said that sprains can even be more painful than some bone breaks. I don’t doubt this at all after living through each; the sprained ankle trumped the broken ribs tenfold.
5. Broken Tailbone
If you’ve ever had a significant bruise on your tailbone, then you can imagine what a broken tailbone must be like. This injury is overtly torturous in that it prevents you from doing so many things beyond playing a sport. No more sitting, sleeping on your back, walking normally or using the bathroom in comfort.
We’re talking about a very inconvenient and painful recovery here. The initial injury is painful enough but is nothing compared to the healing process. In most cases, the healing time spans to three months. The rehabilitation of the bone structure is extremely slow, often exceeding an entire year.
Most injuries force a sedentary lifestyle during recovery, but a broken tailbone prevents any normal methods of being inactive because applying pressure to the area is just too painful. This is the worst part of this injury.
4. Quadruple Knee-Ligament Injury
The anterior cruciate (ACL), posterior cruciate (PCL), medial collateral (MCL) and lateral collateral (LCL) ligaments are all located in the knee and provide support and stability.
Knee injuries are very common in football, so we’ve been given a very large sample size of incidents to watch a player suffer through these devastating injuries.
It also seems that the more severe the damage to the knee, or the more ligaments destroyed in the injury, the more pain the player seems to be in. For this reason, the quadruple ligament injury must be one of the most painful football injuries imaginable.
Images of the toughest men alive holding their knee as they scream bloody murder and flop on the turf like they're on fire has always haunted me as a player. I could never watch a replay of those gruesome plays on TV, as I was always most afraid of those injuries.
It took me quite a bit of time and a ton of mental conditioning in order to get past the fears of having my knee bent completely backwards on a football field.
It was injuries like this that made me question whether I wanted to play football after high school. Turning down several scholarship offers, I sat out for two years before I decided it was worth the risk.
3. Dislocated Elbow
This injury is always one of the more difficult ones to watch occur. Apparently that’s our sympathetic instincts telling us just how painful a dislocated elbow really is.
When I asked my former teammate Kirk Morrison what his most painful injury of all time was, he responded without hesitation that his dislocated elbow suffered in 2009 was the most painful injury.
According to WebMD.com:
An elbow dislocation occurs when the bones of the forearm (the radius and ulna) move out of place compared with the bone of the upper arm (the humerus). The elbow joint, formed where these three bones meet, becomes dislocated, or out of joint.
Symptoms include severe pain in the elbow, swelling and inability to bend your arm. In some cases, you may lose feeling in your hand or no longer have a pulse.
I’d imagine having my elbow bend back in the opposite direction has to feel very similar to having my forearm ripped right off my elbow by a hungry crocodile. Even when I gently bend my elbow past its natural stopping point, I can feel the beginning of the type of pain that must be suffered during that horrific injury.
2. Ruptured Achilies
There’s a major difference between a torn Achilles and ruptured one. When you tear it, you essentially have done just that: made a slight tear in the tendon that does cause intense pain.
That's different from a ruptured Achilles. According to Lowerextremityreview.com:
Of the 31 players who sustained an Achilles tendon rupture, 21 (64 percent) returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after injury. In the three seasons following their return, those 21 players saw significant decreases in games played and power ratings compared to the three seasons preceding the injury.
Clearly this injury can cause some serious long-term damage. Most guys in the NFL understand that a ruptured Achilles likely means the end of their career, or at least a significant decline in one’s mobility.
Essentially what happens when you rupture your Achilles is that the entire tendon is snapped in half. Just like a rubber band, once it’s snapped completely, tension from the tendon causes the Achilles to roll all the way up the calf like a set of blinds on a window.
This injury can be quickly identified by the athlete because it always comes with a very painful and distinct snapping or popping feeling in the lower leg.
A former teammate while in Oakland, Ronald Curry, suffered at least two ruptured Achilles during his career, and he described the pain as instantly excruciating with the months to follow significantly worse.
1. Broken Femur
The femur is considered the longest, largest and strongest bone in the human body. So, when a bone of this size and strength is literally snapped in two, the pain is not only immediately agonizing, but also prolonged over a long period of time.
Although this injury in the NFL is not very common, it does happen, and when it does, it’s often one of those injuries that have fans looking away in horror.
Once the femur bone is snapped in two, the natural constriction of the thigh muscle inadvertently pulls the entire thigh backwards at the break like a bow and arrow pulled too tightly, causing it to snap and fold on top of itself.
Aside from the pain, this injury is also very severe and can even be life-threatening due to the potential damage to main arteries that run right alongside the femur.
Basically, this is definitely one of the worst injuries in terms of pain that you can sustain playing football. The recovery is long and gruesome with mandatory surgery to reset the bone.
Thankfully, I’ve never had to suffer through this injury, nor would I wish this on my worst enemies.
This is the worst of all possible bone fractures.