Keep Kids in the Game for Life
Preventing Overuse Sports Injuries in Your Child
Can there be too much of a good thing? As parents, we naturally think of limiting our kids’ exposure to sugary snacks and activities like videogames and television. But sports? As it turns out, just as you don’t want your children to eat too many sweets, overspecialization and year-round athletic activities are not always healthy for children either.
Kids sustain two types of injuries when playing sports: acute and overuse. Acute injuries are usually the result of a single, traumatic event. Some common examples include wrist fractures, broken arms, twisted ankles, shoulder dislocations and hamstring pulls. Overuse injuries are more subtle and occur over time, making them challenging to diagnose and treat.
Overuse injuries are the result of micro-trauma to the tendons, bones, and joints and affect different parts of the body, depending on the sport. You may have heard of some of them: Little League elbow, swimmer’s shoulder, jumper’s knee, Achilles tendinitis and shin splints. Although adult athletes, including professionals, can experience similar problems, younger bodies have a higher risk of developing issues.
There is a growing epidemic of preventable youth sports injuries that are affecting kids’ athletic hopes and dreams at an early age. Over the last 10 years, more and more young athletes have been showing up at doctors’ offices complaining of problems like sore shoulders and popping knees, symptoms associated with overuse injuries.
But what are the main causes of overuse injuries? The two main factors are overspecialization and not taking breaks. The repetitive motions of only playing one sport, and often only one position, combined with year-round multi-league play are stressing these young bodies and not giving them time to heal and rebuild.
I believe these statistics can give you an idea of the size of the problem. According to Safe Kids USA, 30 million children and over 7 million high school students participate in organized sports. Every year there are around 3.5 million sports injuries suffered by kids under 14, and for middle school and high school students, overuse injuries account for half of all sports injuries.
Now that I’ve scared you from ever letting your child play sports, don’t worry – there is good news. Overuse injuries are easily preventable and there is a national program dedicated to stopping these types of injuries.
The STOP Sports Injuries program was created by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Academy of Pediatrics and other national health care organizations to help prevent youth sports injuries. Sports medicine practices around the country, like South Bend Orthopaedics, are participating in the program to help reverse the tide of strained and broken young bodies.
I have worked with world-class college athletes at the University of Notre Dame most of my medical career, but my passion is promoting the safety of young athletes. That is why I am so excited about this program. It provides educational resources for athletes, parents, trainers, coaches and health care providers about the rapid increase in youth sports injuries, the necessary steps to help reverse the trend, teaching proper prevention techniques, and the need to keep young athletes healthy. You can visit STOPsportsinjuries.org to learn more.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
This old saying is so true when it comes to preventing sports injuries. The preventative measures listed below can help your young athlete to avoid injury.
Specialization in Just One Sport
Due to hectic daily schedules and the pressure to excel, we have developed a culture of one sport specialization. It is no longer common for kids to play different sports during different seasons of the year. It is not uncommon for 13 year olds to be on two baseball/softball teams, a recreational league, school team, and an elite traveling team. This could mean four to six games each week.
This focus on one sport is leading to overuse injuries because the young athlete is repeating the same motion over and over again in the same area of the body. They are stressing one part of the body all the time as opposed to participating in different sports where they’re putting the stress on a different part of the body during different seasons.
Take a Break
Athletes that play sports year-round are more likely than others to experience overuse injuries. They are not giving their body a chance to rest and recover. Encourage your child to play different sports during the year to avoid continuous use of the same muscle groups, but to also take a season off.
Probably the biggest risk factor, from a physical standpoint, is fatigue. Remember, even professional athletes don’t play all year round. There are mandatory rest times for most pro sports leagues.
Because young athletes’ bones are still growing, they are vulnerable to problems in the growth plates, which are areas of soft tissue near the joints. These growth plates are the weakest part of a skeleton and injuring them can cause a bone to grow improperly. Fortunately, most growth plate fractures heal and do not leave permanent damage, but the alarming increase in overuse injuries has me concerned about how – and how much – our kids are playing one type of sport.
I strongly encourage an annual pre-participation physical exam. It allows for the screening, prevention and treatment of any conditions before they become a problem during the season.
Proper Training and Technique
Training errors are the most common cause of overuse injuries. Proper technique is critical in avoiding these types of injuries. Even a slight change in form may be the culprit. If they are not being taught the correct form or being given an appropriate stretching exercise, these kids may be developing chronic strain injuries. Coaches and trainers are there to help teach proper technique. This helps not just with improving your child’s skill at a sport, but also to avoid injury. Before beginning any training program, consult with a sports medicine physician or athletic trainer to make sure the program won’t cause chronic or reoccurring problems.
Athletes need to learn to listen to their bodies. Remember that “no pain, no gain” does not apply here. The 10 percent rule is very helpful in determining how to take things to the next level. Basically, do not increase training activity by more than 10 percent per week. This allows the body ample time for recovery and response.
Proper Warm-up and Cool-down
Warming up before an activity helps bring the heart rate up from the resting level. A low-impact exercise like jogging in place is great for this. Athletes should stretch their muscles to release tension and help prevent injury. Stretching involves going just beyond the point of resistance and should not include bouncing.
You should have your kids cool down after an activity as well. This allows the heart rate to gradually return to a resting level. And stretching may be helpful to avoid injury.
Proper Fitting Equipment
Make sure your child’s equipment is in good condition and fits properly. If your kids are like mine, they grow like weeds. Last year’s baseball cleats or gymnastic shoes may not fit this year, so do an equipment check before each athletic season.
Drink Enough Water
Young athletes often forget to hydrate, which is essential for the body to run well. Hydration allows muscles to work properly and avoid cramps and spasms. Make sure your child takes water breaks every 30 minutes or more often based on the activity level and temperature. Remember, sugar-based drinks don’t work nearly as well as water to hydrate your child’s body.
Finally, if your child experiences sharp, stabbing pains, he or she should stop the activity immediately. Playing through pain may make the injury worse and probably cut your child’s season short. If you have concerns that your child may be injured, schedule an appointment with your physician as quick as possible. The sooner an injury is diagnosed, the more effectively it can be treated and the sooner your young athlete can return to play.