Youth sports injuries on the rise

Consumer Reports News: February 02, 2010 09:08 AM

Your child may want to play sports like Peyton Manning, Alexander Ovechkin, or their favorite Olympic athlete, but sports injuries in children are on the rise—at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, doctors have seen its patient numbers for children with sports injuries double each year since 2007. And more than half of the 7 million sports and recreation-related injuries that occur in the U.S. each year are sustained by youth between ages 5 and 24.

The good news? Some common-sense measures can help kids enjoy activities more, minus the pain. We talked to Aaron Provance, M.D., a pediatric sports medicine specialist at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, for the scoop.

Q: What is it about a child’s body that makes it susceptible to overuse or other injuries from sports?
A: Open growth centers make children and adolescents more susceptible to specific overuse injuries. They are areas of developing bone made up of cartilage, usually located near the ends of bones, that are weaker than the surrounding ligaments, bones and tendons. The growth centers close as the bones reach full maturity. Areas of growth are usually the weak link in the musculoskeletal chain. And phases of rapid growth during puberty can decrease flexibility, which increases stress to those growth centers, causing inflammation and pain. Girls can also be more at risk for overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, if there is an underlying nutritional deficit.

Q: Why are you seeing an increase in injury among children and teens?
A: Children are involved with sports at a much younger age than in the past. Earlier focus on one sport, rather than on multiple sports throughout childhood and adolescence, is occurring more often. Increasing opportunities for sports scholarships and added drive from parents and coaches to achieve excellence in youth sports have also increased the intensity level at which these young athletes participate. 

Q: Is the amount of sports training and activity you see in your pediatric patients healthy?
A: It can be managed with the proper education about over-training. Overuse injuries occur because of the increased intensity of training over a short period of time without the proper amount of rest or recovery between workouts. The key point for young athletes to understand is that they should not continue to train through significant pain, which is usually due to inflammation.

Q: What would constitute a healthy amount or type of exercise for a typical child or teen?
A: Incorporating a rest day after the second or third day of training should help to decrease overuse injuries by allowing time for the musculoskeletal structures to recover. Children should participate in the activities they enjoy most, but too much of one activity or sport can increase the risk of overuse injuries. Continued stress to the same muscles or joints can fatigue the areas, leading to pain and inflammation. Most of these young athletes do not have an off-season, which also increases the risk of injury. One solution might be for a runner to cross-train with swimming or cycling to increase their cardiovascular condition without causing added stress to the lower extremities.

Q: Are any sports in particular more taxing or likely to cause harm?
A: Young throwing athletes, such as pitchers or football players, are at added risk for shoulder and elbow growth center injuries. For this reason, pitch counts have been implemented in youth baseball to decrease overuse injuries. Gymnasts are also at higher risk for back injuries because of the stress from tumbling and continued arching of the lower spine. Repetitive motions without appropriate rest in any sport can be a set-up for an overuse injury. And finally, children and adolescents participating in contact sports, such as football and hockey, are more at risk for head injuries and concussions.

Q: What else can kids and parents do to prevent sports injuries from occurring?
A: Focusing on the enjoyment of sports or activities should be the main goal of children and adolescents participating in specific sports. Open communication among the coach, parent, and athlete is vital when preventing overuse injuries—particularly encouraging young athletes to report any pain they feel while training. Seeking medical care from a sports medicine physician can also help diagnose and treat an overuse injury early in its course.

For related information, see diving-related injuries to children, football and wrestling injuries, and bike helmet buying advice and Ratings.

—Artemis DiBenedetto

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