Recognize and Prevent Common Injuries That Could Sideline Your Athlete
For many kids, playing sports is an important part of growing up. They learn more than the right way to hit/kick/throw/dribble a ball. They develop a healthy lifestyle while learning teamwork, sportsmanship and perseverance.
Unfortunately, along with those great life lessons can come sports injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.6 million kids age 19 and younger visit the emergency room for sports- and recreation-related injuries each year.
Dr. Edwin R. Cadet is an orthopedic surgeon with Raleigh Orthopaedic. He’s also an official orthopedic surgeon for North Carolina State University’s athletic department. With more kids involved in sports these days, Cadet says he sees a variety of overuse injuries. These injuries occur when growing bodies are stressed from repetitive motions like throwing, running or jumping. Often, Cadet’s patients are children who specialize in a single sport or play for extended seasons.
“My personal recommendation is not to specialize until later in high school,” Cadet says. “It’s been demonstrated that the earlier kids specialize in one sport, the higher their rate for injury.”
Cadet counsels parents to ensure that kids who focus on a single sport get an off-season. Taking a break helps kids prevent overuse injuries. Though most overuse injuries are treated with rest and not surgery, athletes could be sidelined for up to a year. Some injuries can have lasting effects. The following are some of the more common overuse injuries young athletes experience and ways to prevent those injuries.
Runner’s knee is caused when the kneecap doesn’t track properly during motion. Kids can experience swelling and pain in their knee. They may also have difficulty climbing stairs. Cadet says he often sees this condition in athletes who participate in soccer and track and field.
Treatment for runner’s knee involves physical therapy to strengthen and stabilize the knee area. Kids may also need to rest and take an anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen. To prevent the injury, kids can practice basic strength-building exercises like jumping rope, squats and leg raises. Cadet says body weight is sufficient for young athletes, and that it’s best to delay weight-training until high school, when bones are more developed and stable.
As kids’ bones grow, tendons and muscles have to catch up. This delay can put additional strain on already-soft bones. Osgood-Schlatter disease is a swelling of the tendon that attaches the kneecap to the shinbone. Kids may experience swelling and complain of a painful bump below their knee. Osgood-Schlatter disease is more common in kids during growth spurts, especially if they participate in sports that involve a lot of running and jumping.
This overuse injury usually resolves itself as kids’ growth slows. Initially, however, kids should rest from sports for six weeks or more. Health care providers may also recommend a short period of ibuprofen and icing to reduce the swelling. Stretching before exercise can help reduce the pull on kids’ growing limbs and lower the risk of injury.
Little League Elbow
Little League elbow is another overuse injury associated with throwing that is common in adolescents. It’s usually seen in young baseball pitchers (hence the name), but can also be experienced by gymnasts, golfers and tennis players. Repeat stress on the elbow from throwing a ball or doing handstands can cause inflammation in a child’s elbow growth plates. Kids with Little League elbow may complain of aching or swelling.
Athletes generally recover from this injury with 6-12 weeks of rest. Parents can help prevent injury by monitoring their athlete’s activity level. For instance, baseball players shouldn’t exceed their league’s pitch count for a given time period. Parents can also encourage their kids not to “play through the pain,” which will only prolong their recovery time.
An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury is a tear or sprain to ligaments in an athlete’s knee. ACL injuries can happen when athletes plant their weight on one foot and twist, as when a soccer player kicks a ball. Kids may report feeling a “pop” in their knee, followed by pain and swelling. According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, ACL injuries are more common with female athletes. More than 50,000 female athletes at the high school and collegiate level report ACL injuries each year.
Unfortunately, Cadet says, ACL injuries are becoming more prevalent in young athletes and usually require surgery. Depending on the severity of the tear or sprain, recovery time could run from nine months to a year. Athletes with ACL injuries could also suffer later from osteoarthritis. Kids can prevent ACL injuries with proper conditioning and training. A consultation with a physical therapist or sports trainer can help athletes identify weak muscles or faulty techniques that could lead to injury.
No discussion about kids and sports would be complete these days without talking about concussions. Concussions are caused by a sudden movement that jars the brain inside the skull. According to the CDC’s HEADS UP program, kids who return to sports before they’ve fully recovered from a concussion are more likely to have repeat concussions. The effects of repeat concussions can be serious and lasting, as many retired NFL players can attest to.
Concussions can occur in any sport, but are more common in contact sports like football, lacrosse and soccer. The risk of a head injury can be reduced with proper fitting equipment, like helmets. Common symptoms parents should watch for include complaints of a headache, loss of consciousness, nausea or vomiting. Treatments will vary, but generally involve a period of rest from activity and screen time.
If you suspect your child has a concussion, see your child’s health care provider right away. For more information about kids and concussions, visit cdc.gov/headsup.
Christa C. Hogan writes for kids and adults. She lives in the Triangle with her husband and three young baseball players.