Early Sports Specialization Puts Student-Athletes at Risk for Overuse Injuries

Sports medicine experts atBaptist Health’s Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute are seeing an increasing number of overuse injuriesamong South Florida student-athletes. Depending on the sport and the type ofmotion required, these may include tendonitis in the knee, elbow or shoulder,rotator cuff strains, shin splints or stress fractures in the foot.

Nationwide, 60 million teens participatein organized athletics each year, according to a recent study by the AmericanOrthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Eyeing a college scholarship or – evenbetter – a potentially lucrative career in professional sports, an ever-growingnumber of them are specializing in just one sport before the age of 14.

“Early sports specialization”(ESS) doesn’t just increase a student-athlete’s prospects for future success,however. The study showed that athletes who specialized in their varsity sportbefore the age of 14 were more likely to report a history of injuries andmultiple college injuries during the course of their athletic career.

Roger Saldana, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute, said they are seeing a huge increase in growth plateinjuries – damage to areas of active new bone growth near the ends of bones –as kids are being pushed more, and playing longer and harder.

“Instead of playing differentsports in different seasons, kids now are training multiple hours a day for onesport from an early age, especially here in South Florida where the weatherallows for year-round sports,” said Dr. Saldana.

Unlike broken bones or tornACLs, overuse injuries tend to be sport-specific and develop over time, as aresult of repetitive motion.

“With ESS, you overworkcertain muscles and don’t give your body the chance it needs to recuperate,making it more likely that you’ll suffer an overuse injury,” said orthopedicsurgeon Gautam Yagnik, M.D., one of Dr. Saldana’s colleagues at the Institute.

Dr. Yagnik, who serves as ateam physician for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers and cares for many professionalathletes, said several recent studies demonstrate that many elite-levelathletes didn’t begin intense, single-sport training until later inadolescence. He believes that early sport diversification – particularly beforethe age of 12 – not only leads to a more well-rounded athlete but may alsoincrease the chance for long-term success by decreasing the risk of overuseinjuries, emotional stress and eventual burnout.

According to Dr. Saldana, surgicalintervention is rarely needed for overuse injuries – only when the growth platebreaks off. “Probably 90 percent of overuse injuries can be resolved through a combinationof rest, stretching and a change of mechanics.”

So, with school starting inAugust, what can you do to make sure your child enjoys an injury-free sportsseason? Prevention is best, according to Dr. Saldana and Dr. Yagnik.

Prescription for Prevention:

  1. Observe your child. Look for signs of injury. Are they limping or favoring theirnon-dominant arm? Is there a noticeable drop-off in their performance on thefield or court?
  • Don’t play through pain. The old adage, “No pain, no gain,” is inappropriatefor children. Because they’re growing so quickly, their ligaments tend to betighter and require more warm-up to maintain flexibility.
  • Keep on stretching. Stretches and exercises help keep your muscles flexible. Massagetherapy and physical therapy can also be helpful.
  • Rest your muscles. If you’re a one-sport athlete, make sure you give your musclesadequate opportunity for rest and recovery. Take one to two days a week awayfrom your sport and, if possible, one to two months a year.
  • Stay hydrated.Dehydration is always a risk in South Florida, especially in summer months.Because muscles and tendons aren’t as flexible when dehydrated, this canincrease the risk of sports injuries.
  • Mix it up. Changesports with the seasons. This gives student-athletes an opportunity to developdifferent muscle groups and skill sets, and rest overworked muscles for awhile.

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