Kids' Sports: Playing Safe to Avoid Overuse Injuries

Many students are resuming sports activities on fields and courts. While the competition and excitement of winning are positive lures, the explosion of youth sports in recent years has produced a surge in injuries.

“We’ve definitely seen a spike in the number of kids getting hurt from playing sports in the last five-to-six years,” said Roger Saldana, M.D., a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute. “Kids are starting to play at younger ages, specializing in one sport sooner, playing on multiple teams at the same time and not resting enough.”

Longer engagements in organized sports and decreased diversity in playing multiple sports are contributing to kids getting hurt, he adds.

“Playing one sport too much at a young age puts young athletes at risk of overuse injuries,” Dr. Saldana said.

Concerned by the number of U.S. youth getting hurt, sports medicine specialists, other doctors involved in treating kids and national youth sports organizations commissioned a study to look at the issues. Their conclusion: less time playing and focusing on one sport and more overall skill development.

“Early sport specialization may not lead to long-term success in sports and may increase risk for overuse injury and burnout,” said the group’s position statement published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. “Sport diversification should be encouraged at younger ages,” it added. And “when an overuse injury is diagnosed, it is essential to address the underlying cause(s). The athlete, parents and coaches should be involved in reviewing all risk factors and developing a strategy to attempt to avoid recurrent injury.”

Dr. Saldana says when kids change up the sports they play, different muscles get used which, in turn, helps the body handle the impact of an athlete’s main sport.

Among the most common overuse conditions Dr. Saldana sees in young athletes are shoulder injuries caused by overhead motions, such as the motions baseball players and swimmers perform. Other common injury sites are soccer and football players’ knees, gymnasts’ wrists and back, dancers’ feet and baseball players’ elbows.

Pitchers are increasingly having “Tommy John Surgery” to repair their elbows at younger ages, Dr. Saldana said. “We hardly ever saw this type of injury in kids younger than 16,” he adds. “But now we’re seeing these types of torn ligaments in younger kids.”

“A lot of the overuse injuries interfere with a child’s growth plate,” adds Dr. Saldana.  “Their bodies don’t have the capacity to handle and heal in time from too much repeated motion. These small ‘traumas’ are the definition of overuse.”

Avoiding Overuse Injuries in Kids

While some experts may tout cross-training as a way to work different muscles and prevent injuries, Dr. Saldana cautions about too much training.

”My quick and easy rule for training in one sport is no more hours per week than the child’s age,” he said.

In addition, Dr. Saldana says one of the most important ways to prevent an overuse injury doesn’t involve any type of movement or action. He stresses the importance of rest.

“When given enough time to rest, most of these kids recover and go on to playing their sport,” he says. “There’s really no place for pain in kids’ sports. While adults may motivate themselves physically with a ‘No Pain, No Gain” motto, this is detrimental to kids.”

Youth sports have a plethora of benefits, like cardiovascular and learning how to work with teams, Dr. Saldana adds. But there’s no reason to push kids to extremes, like a 10-year old who’s been having pain for three months, a condition he’s helped treat several times.

The main message Dr. Saldana wants to get across to parents and kids about playing youth sports is: listen to the body. He advocates stretching before games, matches and tournaments.  Anecdotally, we know it helps warm up the body and prevent injuries, he said.

“Kids should not be playing through pain — the pain’s there for a reason,” Dr. Saldana adds. “Resting, stretching and learning proper techniques are key in preventing injuries.”

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