For many of us, sports are an important part of childhood, and children seem to be playing more sports more seriously and at higher levels than ever before. Combine that with the fact that more kids have opportunities than ever before to play sports all year long, and the risk of sports-related injuries skyrockets.
Unfortunately, many children don’t have the same perspective on overexertion that their parents and coaches do. Because children find it easier than adults to take warning signs in stride, parents must be especially vigilant about the risks their children run, and specially prepared to act when problems begin to arise.
What Types of Sports-Related Injuries Affect Children the Most?
Sports-related injuries in children tend to follow some specific patterns and fall into two broad categories.
Major trauma isn’t necessarily severe; this category covers injuries with known, often dramatic, causes. Falling off a bike and scraping a knee is an example of major trauma. Unless an injury due to major trauma reveals an underlying medical condition, its diagnosis and treatment tend to be straightforward.
Injuries of overuse are far more difficult to diagnose and, because initial diagnoses are often incomplete, far more difficult to treat, as well. These injuries may be due to repetitive stress on specific body parts, or to a series of minor injuries, none of which seemed worthy in and of itself of medical attention.
Those things are true of children and adults alike, but bodies that are underdeveloped are extremely susceptible to overuse injury, and even relatively minor trauma can cause a fast-growing body to develop abnormally. Because they are so insidious and potentially so severe, the rest of this article will focus primarily on injuries of overuse.
Why Are More Children Experiencing Injuries of Overuse?
In the US and many other countries, children play sports differently these days than they did even 25 years ago. This is largely due to two factors: increased formalization of athletic activities and the increased availability of year-round opportunities to play sports.
Until recently, even children who played organized sports spent at least as much time playing games they organized with their peers. That meant long stretches without intense, repetitive practice; no exhortations of children from authority figures to push themselves harder, and no threat of punishment if performance flagged.
Each of those factors carries a significant injury risk. Without them, the balance of children’s play was relatively safe; with them, the danger of injury has increased dramatically.
Increased mobility and urbanization has also contributed to the phenomenon. Greater concentrations of people have encouraged the building of more indoor athletic facilities than ever before, and improvements to road systems and automobile efficiency allow people to travel farther than ever as part of their daily routines. As a result, more children are encouraged to participate in organized sports throughout the year.
What Injuries of Overuse Affect children?
When children experience pain after athletic activities, the first step toward diagnosis often involves a look at their schedule. Daily play with a travelling team can be a strong indicator that the pain stems from a creeping injury due to overuse. Multiple practices per day can incur the same risk, as can steading coaching and competition in individual sports or heavy long-distance running.
Some very specific activities can also qualify: pitching a baseball is a surprisingly damaging act in and of itself, especially without the kind of refined mechanics that often escape children. When young pitchers attempt to throw curveballs and other kinds of pitch that naturally apply high loads of torque to elbows and shoulders, the extra damage done to muscles and connective tissue can add up quickly.
When a child’s schedule indicates a high risk for overuse-related injuries, doctors often look for a few telltale signs before reaching a diagnosis. When pain is reported in joints, or where tendons attach long muscles to bone, tendinitis is usually to blame. When pain occurs midway through the muscle, the diagnosis may point to a small tear that wasn’t allowed enough time to heal and gradually worsened.
Longer bones are prone to stress fractures in all athletes, but children are at special risk. Because their legs are still growing, and because children’s sports training tends to emphasize running so heavily, shin splints are the most common form of a stress fracture in children. In rare cases, injuries to a joint’s cartilage result in osteoarthritis, even in young children.
Each of these injuries has its own treatment regimen, but aside from arthritis, each can usually be resolved completely. Children might be especially prone to certain kinds of injury, but they also tend to be wonderful healers when given the right treatment.
How Can I Help My Child Avoid Sports-Related Injury?
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers some simple guidelines for helping children get the most out of athletic activities.
- Children engaged in organized sports should be given at least two days off per week. This isn’t just resting time: it represents the body’s best chance at repairing damage and strengthening joints and muscles.
- Total exercise time should be increased very gradually. Children habitually underreport minor aches and pains, and abrupt increases in sports-related activities can easily invite injuries that require long stretches of rehabilitation.
- Children should take at least two or three months off from each sport every year. Even professional athletes enjoy their off seasons, and children need even more variety in their athletic calendars.
- Children should be limited to one team per sport per season.
- Take the early signs of overuse and burnout seriously. Children will usually argue to get back in the game, so parents should be prepared to stand firm. Seek advice on recovery and methods of rehabilitation from an orthopedic doctor. A little time spent recovering completely from a minor injury can translate into more playing time later on when the alternative is a trip to the doctor and a mandated stretch of complete rest.
- Sports are about kids, not the grownups coaching them or cheering them on. Keep it fun.