What You Should Know About Preventing Children’s Sports Injuries
A leading expert on sports injuries, orthopaedic surgeon James Penna, MD, offers practical tips on how to participate safely in sports and prevent injury.
What poses the greatest risk for children and teens who play sports?
The biggest problem right now is that many children and teens are not taking time off from their sports activities. Young athletes need to rest, but many participate in sports year-round. This can result in overuse injuries. A child should not play the same sport 12 months a year; there should be a two-to-four month break from any one sport, especially the sports that involve overhand motion such as tennis and baseball. As for the students who compete in year-round sports such as gymnastics and swimming, they need to pay attention to all the small things—including warming up properly and stretching.
What kinds of injuries are most common?
We most frequently see overuse injuries such as stress fractures, growth plate fractures, and repetitive stress injuries. Making news these days are ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries—knee injuries—in girls, as they participate more frequently in sports. In all these cases, scheduled rests, a change in exercise patterns, and practicing good mechanics can go a long way toward prevention.
Is there anything in particular that parents can watch out for?
In baseball, they can watch the pitch counts. There are very specific guidelines for young pitchers on how many pitches they can throw in a season. This gets complicated, because kids today play in multiple leagues—their regular team, a traveling team, and an all-star team, for example—making it particularly important to track the pitch counts cumulatively. Each league may have its own pitch count rules, but that doesn’t mean the child gets to meet the count for each league. The weekly pitch count is a total for each child.
Parents also need to pay attention to the wear and tear on their child’s athletic cleats. In general, a pair of cleats lasts about 200 miles, or the equivalent of one season. Check the cleats often—that means inspect the insoles as well as the spikes—to ensure they are not run down. This will help prevent foot and ankle injuries that could easily be avoided.
Parents can also help ensure that their child stays hydrated. Water is the best replenishing agent, and athletes should take hydration breaks early and often.
What about preventing head injuries?
Most major organized sports—football, baseball, hockey, lacrosse—have done a good job of ensuring that children wear appropriate protective gear. In fact, football organizations have been very proactive in teaching kids to not use their heads as weapons by instituting penalties for spearing and direct blows to the head. Currently, the concussion rates are higher among soccer players than among football players, and we’ve found that soccer head injuries have tended to go undertreated. Kids who participate in “X Games” sports, such as skateboarding, BMX biking, offroading, skiing, and snowboarding also need to be sure to wear helmets and pads as these sports put them at a higher risk for injuries.
If a head injury has occurred, it is particularly important that the child gets 100 percent clearance from his or her doctor, including a complete neurologic check up, before playing again. A seemingly minor head injury sustained while a child is still symptomatic from a prior injury could have catastrophic consequences.
Are there any age limitations for certain sports?
Children who are still growing, especially pre-teen and younger, are best served by emphasizing aerobic training for endurance and body-weight exercises (pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, etc.) for strength. In teenagers, weightlifting can be beneficial, but should always be done with appropriate supervision. There is as much risk for injury in the weight room as there is out on the playing field, so the same rules apply for each (variation, technique, and scheduled rest).
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