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

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July 29, 2019

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Sports medicine experts at Baptist Health’s Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute are seeing an increasing number of overuse injuries among South Florida student-athletes. Depending on the sport and the type of motion 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 participate in organized athletics each year, according to a recent study by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. Eyeing a college scholarship or – even better – a potentially lucrative career in professional sports, an ever-growing number 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 sport before the age of 14 were more likely to report a history of injuries and multiple 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 plate injuries – 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 different sports in different seasons, kids now are training multiple hours a day for one sport from an early age, especially here in South Florida where the weather allows for year-round sports,” said Dr. Saldana.

Unlike broken bones or torn ACLs, overuse injuries tend to be sport-specific and develop over time, as a result of repetitive motion.

“With ESS, you overwork certain 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 orthopedic surgeon Gautam Yagnik, M.D., one of Dr. Saldana’s colleagues at the Institute.

Dr. Yagnik, who serves as a team physician for the Miami Dolphins and Florida Panthers and cares for many professional athletes, said several recent studies demonstrate that many elite-level athletes didn’t begin intense, single-sport training until later in adolescence. He believes that early sport diversification – particularly before the age of 12 – not only leads to a more well-rounded athlete but may also increase the chance for long-term success by decreasing the risk of overuse injuries, emotional stress and eventual burnout.

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

So, with school starting in August, what can you do to make sure your child enjoys an injury-free sports season? 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 their non-dominant arm? Is there a noticeable drop-off in their performance on the field or court?
  • Don’t play through pain. The old adage, “No pain, no gain,” is inappropriate for children. Because they’re growing so quickly, their ligaments tend to be tighter and require more warm-up to maintain flexibility.
  • Keep on stretching. Stretches and exercises help keep your muscles flexible. Massage therapy and physical therapy can also be helpful.
  • Rest your muscles. If you’re a one-sport athlete, make sure you give your muscles adequate opportunity for rest and recovery. Take one to two days a week away from 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 can increase the risk of sports injuries.
  • Mix it up. Change sports with the seasons. This gives student-athletes an opportunity to develop different muscle groups and skill sets, and rest overworked muscles for a while.

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