Overuse Injuries in Kids: Why More Student Athletes are Suffering
When children play team sports too intensely and frequently, or specialize in one sport at a young age, they run the risk of developing serious injuries.
Participation in youth sports is at an all-time high in the U.S. Estimates indicate that 27 million American children between ages 6 and 18 now participate in team sports, and a whopping 60 million kids in the same age group participate in some form of organized athletics, according to a statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
For many kids, sports have important benefits. The activity gives children the chance to exercise regularly and improve cardiovascular health, physical ability, and dexterity. Sports also offer kids the chance to develop leadership and team-building skills, and learn how to face challenges. But there are downsides: when children play team sports too intensely and frequently, or specialize in one sport at a young age, they run the risk of developing overuse injuries.
In fact, overuse injuries account for nearly half of all sports injuries in middle school and high school students, according to national data. Fortunately, there are steps that kids can take to minimize their risk of injury while still staying in the game. Here, John D. Baldea, M.D., sports medicine specialist at Indiana University Health, offers some helpful suggestions.
Today, children often have five or more practices each week, more than one game, and tournaments on the weekends. Research suggests that when kids play excessively, this ups their risk for overuse injuries as well as acute injuries. Without sufficient breaks between practices and games, kids don’t have the chance to let their muscles rest and recover. Fatigue also plays a role: when kids are overworked, they often get tired and have a hard time maintaining optimal athletic form, which can increase the likelihood of sprains, strains, and breaks. What’s more, many kids don’t ever take a season off.
For instance, children could easily sign up for an outdoor soccer league in the fall, an indoor league in the winter, and a camp league in the summer. But this incessant pace is not healthy for a child’s young, growing body, and can lead to overuse injuries. “We recommend at least two months per year off from all competitive sports,” says Dr. Baldea. This allows kids to rest and avoid burn out.
When children focus on one sport, they often to do the same movements over and over (i.e. the way a pitcher throws with one arm repeatedly). This can strain certain parts of the body while other parts of the body remain underdeveloped, and this uneven training can pave the way for overuse injuries. To guard against this, it’s key for kids to incorporate a variety of exercise forms into their lives so that that they work other muscles, joints, and ligaments. “If you feel compelled to regularly exercise, then cross-train to make sure you are not overloading any muscle groups,” explains Dr. Baldea. Also kids should get instruction on how to warm up, cool down, and stretch properly to minimize injury.
Don’t Specialize Too Soon
“Overall, we recommend waiting as long as possible before specializing in one sport, ideally until high school or later, to avoid overuse injuries,” says Dr. Baldea. “The vast majority of elite athletes on the professional level did not specialize in their sport until at least high school.”
If your child is determined to get a sports scholarship to college or go pro, Dr. Baldea warns that it’s important to manage expectations. “The odds of an athlete becoming a professional in any sport are exceedingly low, so please allow your child to play multiple sports and most importantly, have fun. I advise kids or young adults to have fun and play outside,” he says. Intense sports specialization can wait.
-- By Rachel Rabkin Peachman