Playing it Safe: Preventing Youth Sports Injuries

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Is one or more of the youngsters in your life involved in sports? If so, good for them! Participating in sports not only helps keep young people fit and healthy, it can also help them grow in confidence and self-discipline, improve their coordination, and experience firsthand the importance and value of working as part of a team. But as every athlete knows, along with the benefits and pleasures of an active, sports-oriented lifestyle comes the risk of injury. And young athletes are at even greater risk than adults because their still-growing muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments are more prone to injury.

In the past couple of decades, youth sports injuries have been on the rise. More children than ever are now participating in athletics, and there is speculation that accelerated training regimens may be contributing to the increase in injuries. Learn what you can do to help your young folks enjoy their sports safely.

Common Injuries

Two broad categories of injuries are common among young athletes.

Acute injuries are the fractures, sprains, bruises and cuts that can result from sudden trauma — as in a fall, collision, sudden twisting of the leg, etc. After such an injury, the coach and parents should apply necessary first aid and seek medical treatment for the injured child.

Overuse injuries, as the name implies, are those caused by the frequent, repetitive use of particular parts of the body. They show up gradually over time and are usually the result of continued activity without taking enough time to heal between games or workout sessions. They include problems like throwing injuries, tendonitis, shin splints, and others. Overuse injuries account for half of all sports-related injuries in children and teens.

And young athletes are at even greater risk than adults because their still-growing muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments are more prone to injury.

The Stress Fracture

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A stress fracture is a common type of overuse injury. When muscles tire from continual use, some of the burden of absorbing the impact and stress of exercise is transferred to the bones, which, under the strain, can develop small breaks called stress fractures. They can develop when a young athlete:

  • Is wearing equipment that fits poorly or doesn’t offer enough support
  • Suddenly gets more playing time than usual
  • Doesn’t get sufficient rest between workouts or games
  • Increases the frequency or intensity of workouts too quickly
  • Begins playing or working out on a new surface

How Can I Help Prevent Injuries?

Reducing the risk of youth sport-related injuries requires a multi-point approach involving parents, coaches and the child. Strategies include:

  • Having a full physical exam before participating in sports
  • Eating a good, healthy diet that’s rich in calcium and vitamin D (for strong bones)
  • Drinking plenty of fluids at practice and during games
  • Participating in conditioning training prior to playing in competition
  • Not specializing in one sport before late adolescence, and playing only one sport, on one team, per season
  • Warming up thoroughly before practice and competition, and cooling down afterward
  • Participating in cross-training — that is, alternating training routines to avoid overworking one area of the body
  • Not “playing through the pain,” which could be the sign of an overuse injury  

Jon Sulentic, DO, MS, of Premier Orthopedics talks about why overuse injuries are on the rise in student athletes. Click play to watch the video or read the transcript.

Why are overuse injuries in student athletes on the rise?

The comments in various news media describe the increase in overuse injuries in young athletes, and what we've seen with that trend still needs to be ideally worked out with clinical trials or research trials, but the basic opinion is is that the training methodologies that are implemented in modern sports are lacking in enough rest recovery ... Let me rephrase. They need more rest in their training programs, and so the motivation to achieve elite level at a younger age is, I think, ultimately the core of many of those injuries.

Accelerated training programs are common programs in even low-end clubs, and many of the kids are not prepared for those programs even though the intent of the program is to progressively advance their training volume and training intensity, but not all programs are the same. Oftentimes, they have a label of an organized accelerated training program but the folks running the program are not skilled enough to apply those principles of training to the young athlete, and then we see the overuse injuries occur. Kids need to rest. They need multiple sports. They need cross training, to use an old term, and our modern sports are not set up for that in this country at least.

 

Jeffrey James, DO, of Premier Orthopedics shares more on the wisdom of encouraging young people to play multiple sports and the long-term effects of overuse injuries.

Is it better for kids to play multiple sports or to specialize? Click play to watch the video or read the transcript.

Is it better for kids to play multiple sports or to specialize?

As far as youth sports go, it's much better for kids to play multiple sports. The specialization really shouldn't come until high school, if not college, and that's for multiple reasons. One, doing the same activity all year long does lead to overuse injuries and a lot of muscular imbalances. And if you're doing that, you oftentimes don't get adequate rest because you're doing the same sport the whole entire year. Whereas if you're changing sports, it, one, gives ... For example, if you're a baseball player, it oftentimes can give your arm, your shoulder, your elbow time to recover while you're doing basketball or football or whatever sport you choose to play, while also you get a completely different set of muscles and tendons and bone stresses, if you want to call it that, where over time that's good for preventing the muscle imbalances and problems with overuse injuries.

 

Are there long-term consequences from overuse injuries? Click play to watch the video or read the transcript.

Are there long-term consequences from overuse injuries?

Most of the time, overuse injuries don't pose any long-term consequences as long as they're diagnosed appropriately and caught early. The treatment generally with rest and adequate training programs can prevent the long-term consequences, but if you continue to do your activities and just push through the pain, you can certainly have some long-term consequences. A few examples of this would be youth baseball or softball players who continue to pitch or play with elbow pain and they can develop fractures to the growth plates in their arm or even tears to the ligaments in the elbow that may require surgery and have long-term consequences. A second example would be runners who just continue to run through the pain and they can develop stress injuries to the bone that eventually can lead to true fractures that can sometimes be pretty bad or require surgeries.

 

Be sure your child’s coaches know the signs of stress fracture, which can be harder to spot than the effects of a more acute injury. No matter the cause of the injury, any child who complains of pain that doesn’t go away or that affects their sports performance should be seen by a health care provider.  

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