Millions of American children and teenagers participate in organized sports. These activities allow children to get much needed exercise and provide a valuable learning opportunity about the importance of teamwork. But unfortunately, sometimes they get injured. Sports injuries, such as pulled muscles and concussions, send more than 2.6 million children to the emergency room every year. Even if an injury is not serious enough for a trip to the hospital, it can cause pain and interfere with a child’s quality of life.
When you think of sports injuries, traumatic collisions in physical games is likely what you picture since these injuries are typically what we hear about. But many sports injuries happen slowly over time rather than suddenly due to a blow from an opponent or ball. Stress builds over weeks and months, causing muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments to become worn. This wear and tear can cause fractures, strains, tears and other overuse injuries. Understanding and identifying modifiable risk factors for injury in the young athletic population is a critical first step in injury prevention. Risk factors vary by sport, age, and sex.
Youth sports injury prevention begins with making sure our kids warm up, stretch, rest, wear the right gear, and have a healthy attitude toward winning. However, some injuries are unpreventable and need immediate care.
What is a Sports Injury?
Sports injuries result from acute trauma or repetitive stress associated with athletic activities. Sports injuries can affect bones or soft tissue (ligaments, muscles, tendons). A sports injury, such as a bruise, sprain or strain, can lead to acute but temporary pain and can, in some cases, develop into chronic pain that lasts longer than three months. Chronic pain for young athletes can involve shoulder problems, broken bones or injuries to the knees and ankles, ligaments, brain or spinal cord.
Young athletes, especially those younger than 8, are more prone to sports injuries than adults due to ongoing growth spurts, slower reaction times and still-developing hand-eye coordination. Most youth sports injuries result from outdated or ill-fitting sports gear, improper technique, inadequate warmup or overuse of specific muscles.
Warning Signs of Potential Overuse Injuries
Children and teens are at a greater risk for overuse injuries due in large part to growing bones, uneven maturation and inability to detect warning signs.
Pain, fatigue, decreased performance and discomfort that linger for more than a few days after activity are major indicators of potential overuse injuries. Other risk factors include:
- Prior injuries
- Growth spurt
- Higher training volumes
- Inadequate rest and overscheduling (more than one sport and/or league at a time)
Preventing Sports Injuries in Children
The best way to prevent pain and injury during sports is to ensure that your young athlete is playing on the appropriate surface. High-impact indoor sports, such as basketball and gymnastics, should be performed on a type of floor designed to absorb force, and outdoor playing fields should be well-maintained.
Parents and coaches should also encourage all young athletes to:
1. Warm Up and Stretch Before Playing
Stretching helps you to increase range-of-motion and prepare for any type of activity. Slowly acclimate your muscles, tendons and ligaments for the exercise they are about to guide your body through. The warm up is something your child should never skip because it helps to prevent injuries on the field. It is recommended that an athlete spends about 10-15 minutes going through a series of warm up exercises and stretching routines before engaging in rigorous activity.
As warm ups begin, your child’s heart rate and circulation gradually increases. This increases the blood flow to their muscles, which can reduce the incidence of overuse. Also, it loosens the joints, which increases their range of motion.
2. Rest to Avoid Overuse
Not only is it important to rest during a game, it is also valuable to take at least one day off from a sport per week. In addition, many physicians recommend taking three months off from a specific sport per year in order to avoid injuries from overuse. Pay attention to your body. If you are cramping up, experiencing pain, or feeling off, there is a reason for it and it needs to be addressed – whether that’s through rest or medical attention. Don’t ignore the symptoms of an overuse injury, as it can lead to a more painful injury or serious problem in the future. If you have a child athlete, make sure to explain to them the importance of communicating discomfort.
Switching up the sports our kids play, such as soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring, can be an alternative to taking a three-month break. The key is to make sure the alternated sports primarily use different parts of the body to prevent overuse.
3. Use Different Equipment and Vary Workouts
An overuse injury occurs when one body part, or several body parts working together, repeat the same motion over and over. This puts a lot of wear on the joints, ligaments and tendons, and could result in the wearing away of body materials.
One way to prevent these types of injuries is to exercise all different parts of the body rather than focusing on only the muscles you will be using for your sport. This way, you will have the opportunity to gain flexibility and strength in other areas of the body. These muscles will become more active and compensate when the body parts you use frequently get tired. This will make sure athletes are developing different muscle groups and give others the rest they need.
If your child is constantly using the same types of equipment – such as weights and other devices for exercising – switch it up to work different muscles. Alternate days you lift heavy weights with days just concentrating on body weight.
4. Wear Proper Gear
We all know that kids grow like weeds. They are constantly growing out of clothes and shoes. They are probably growing out of their sports gear, too! It is important that their cleats, shin guards, helmets, and other protective gear fit well in order to provide maximum protection.
Also make sure your child is actually wearing their shin guards or helmets. Even in practice!
5. Make Sure Children are Practicing the Proper Technique
It is common for younger athletes to perform improper technique as they are beginning to learn a sport. Kicking a soccer ball, throwing a football, or swinging a lacrosse stick all require an appropriate technique in order to keep the body protected. If you are finding that your child may be performing a sports action the wrong way, speak with his or her coach to help them learn.
6. Discourage Children From Focusing on One Sport Early On
Focusing on one sport can help give kids the edge they need to compete on elite club teams — or travel teams. Many athletes hope to attract the attention of college recruiters, or be offered a sports scholarship. This emphasis on competitive success has become widespread throughout the U.S. While this emphasis does have some upsides, the increased emphasis on sports specialization has led to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout. Specialization may increase the risk of a range of injuries for high school athletes. Children who had higher levels of specialization were at about a 50 percent greater risk of having an injury, including ankle sprains, knee tendonitis, and stress fractures.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, delaying sport specialization for the majority of sports until after puberty (late adolescence — around 15 or 16 years of age) will minimize the risks and lead to a higher likelihood of athletic success.
In addition, children should limit the number of hours they participate in organized sports each week to the number of years they have been alive — or less. So, for example, an 8-year-old child should not play or practice more than 8 hours per week.
A Word From Ventura Orthopedics Today
Taking part in sports and recreation activities is an important part of a healthy, physically active lifestyle for kids. But injuries can, and do, occur. More than 2.6 million children 0-19 years old are treated in the emergency department each year for sports and recreation-related injuries.
Thankfully, there are steps that parents can take to help make sure kids stay safe on the field, the court, or wherever they play or participate in sports and recreation activities. If you are concerned about your child’s health, our specialists are always willing to help you reach your optimal health.
The experienced and dedicated orthopedic surgeons at Ventura Orthopedics are here for you. We are committed to helping you through any procedure until optimum health, strength and mobility are restored. Call us today at 800-698-1280 to schedule an appointment.