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Preventing Youth Sports Injuries Is a Team Effort

Parents and Coaches Must Work with Young Athletes to Reduce Injury Risks

Youth sports are supposed to be fun activities that are good for young athletes’ health. Yet the increasingly competitive atmosphere surrounding youth sports has led to a substantial upsurge in sports injuries in recent years.

“Youth sports have become a bigger production, and the competition is much more intense,” says Medical Director of Washington Sports Medicine Russell Nord, MD.

“Kids are starting to participate in sports at younger ages,” he explains. “Grade school students may be playing in multiple leagues. By the time they are in middle school, many student athletes are specializing in specific sports, which means they don’t train across various sporting activities. They also are training for longer hours, more days each week. Part of the phenomenon stems from the fact that parents have become more likely to pressure their children to excel in a sport, hoping for a college scholarship. As a result, sports medicine specialists are seeing an increase not only in acute traumatic injuries, but also in overuse injuries in young athletes.”

Describing the increase in sports injuries among young athletes as a “cultural issue,” Dr. Nord advocates greater awareness among parents and coaches about the risks for sports injuries in student athletes.

“First of all, children’s bodies are different from ours,” he says. “They are not just ‘little adults.’ Their skeletons still have ‘growth plates’ on each side of their joints and also where the muscles and tendons attach. These growth plates are weak links where injuries are more likely to occur. For example, in an adult, a blow to the knee might result in a tear in the medial collateral ligament (MCL). In a child, however, a similar blow to the knee is more likely to cause an injury such as a fracture through the growth plate, which can be severe and more of a concern than an MCL strain. Hamstring injuries are common in children, too, because their muscles are stretched as their bones grow and are therefore often tight.”

While acute injuries have always been acknowledged as a risk in contact sports such as football, soccer and basketball, the “elephant in the room” that people are just starting to address is the increase in overuse injuries among young athletes, according to Dr. Nord.

“Overuse injuries are more of a hot button,” he asserts. “No sport should be practiced seven days a week. It’s also key to work different muscle groups on different days. The human body requires rest. You can’t do the same activity – like throwing a ball or a specific routine in gymnastics – over and over and over again without risking injury. That’s why the Little League has rules about how many and what types of pitches are allowed at specific ages. Parents and coaches have to be actively involved in educating kids in how to avoid stress fractures and other overuse injuries in their shoulders, elbows and knees.”

Overuse injuries in the shoulder and elbow are most common in sports that involve throwing, according to Washington Sports Medicine Physical Therapist Kory Langwell, DPT. Overuse injuries to knees and ankles are more frequent in athletes who participate in sports that involve running or jumping.

“Parents and coaches need to be aware of the types of baseball pitches that are appropriate at various ages, as well as the recommended limits on the number of pitches a young athlete should throw,” says Langwell. “The same precautions apply to fielders in baseball, as well as to football quarterbacks and other athletes who perform repeated throwing motions.”

When working with young athletes, Langwell incorporates some techniques he has learned from trainers working with San Francisco Giants baseball players.

“Obviously, most 12-year-olds can’t throw like Madison Bumgarner or Tim Lincecum, but a lot of the same principles can apply to young athletes,” he notes. “I played baseball through college, and I still play with local teams, so I have experienced my own injuries. That inspired me to work with young athletes, because they are so motivated to get back in the game. But sometimes it’s hard to restrain them from getting back too soon. So I emphasize training that can help prevent injuries, such as working on strength training and proper form.

“I also try to make sure parents and coaches are aware of ‘at-risk’ athletes,” Langwell adds. “That might include, for example, an athlete playing volleyball or basketball who has poor body mechanics and lands poorly. Often, female athletes are more at risk for injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee because the hip-to-knee anatomy of females differs from males. Female athletes might be more predisposed to ACL injuries if they haven’t gained proper strength in the hip and knee.”

The professional staff members at Washington Sports Medicine work with young athletes on a one-to-one basis, tailoring physical therapy and other treatments to the individual’s needs and goals.

“There are a zillion ways the body can be injured in sports activities, and the treatment depends on the type of injury,” says Dr. Nord. “We believe, though, that it is more important to focus on why these injuries are becoming more common among young athletes. A primary reason is the trend toward focusing only on one sport at an early age or not giving these kids enough time to rest and recover properly, especially here in California, where young athletes can play sports such as baseball all year long. We want to help kids develop a long, happy, healthy and sustainable relationship with athletics.”