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Getting Teen Athletes Back to Sports After Osteochondritis Dissecans

As a parent, you want your teen athlete to stay safe and free of injuries. If your child plays sports, there’s a condition to watch for called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD).

“This condition can develop in joints, most often the knee, elbow and ankle. Experts think it happens when a fragment of the bone separates from the bone beneath it because of poor blood supply,” said Anup Shah, MD, an orthopedic specialist with Banner – University Medicine.

That fragment is a loose piece of bone with cartilage attached to it. It can cause:

  • Pain, especially during activity 
  • Swelling and tenderness 
  • Catching or locking 
  • Less range of motion 

It’s not clear exactly what causes OCD. Experts believe it could be due to:

  • Repetitive stress on the joint 
  • Reduced blood supply to the bone 
  • Genetic factors 

The condition is most common in children and teens, especially those in sports that place repetitive stress on the joints, such as basketball, soccer and gymnastics. It can cause a lot of pain and keep kids from playing sports. 

It sometimes develops in adults, but could be the result of OCD that started in childhood without any symptoms.

Getting care for osteochondritis dissecans

If you or your teen athlete suspects they have OCD, you’ll want to seek professional medical care. Getting care early can help speed healing and reduce the risk of long-term complications. 

A health care provider can evaluate whether OCD or another condition is causing symptoms. They can see exactly where the problem is and how serious it is. 

“A thorough evaluation from a physician can determine the size, stability and location of the lesion,” Dr. Shah said. 

With this information, they can design a treatment plan with your teen’s needs in mind and guide you through every step. With a custom-made plan, your teen will get the right treatment and improve the odds of recovery. Orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists and sports medicine specialists could be a part of the team for diagnosis and treatment.

Treatment for osteochondritis dissecans

Treatment can include physical therapy, rehabilitation and, in some cases, surgery. Teen athletes need to be patient and follow medical advice when they are recovering. 

“Young athletes can expect to return to sports in about six months if their lesion is fixed and protected,” Dr. Shah said.

It takes time for the damaged cartilage to heal, and doing too much too soon can cause setbacks and even make the damage worse. If that happens, your teen might need additional treatment or even surgery.

Physical therapy can help your teen rebuild strength, flexibility and range of motion in the joint. It’s a key part of treatment that can help them return to sports. “Physical therapy can help with the overall mechanics of the joint,” said Dr. Shah. 

Rehabilitation helps condition the muscles near the joint so there’s less chance of reinjury when your teen gets back in the game.

Treatment may also include recommendations for diet and exercise that can help with healing.

Your teen’s health care team will monitor their progress and adjust their treatment plan based on how they are recovering. They can also provide reassurance, motivation and compassion.

Getting back into the game

“A supervised physical therapy and physician-guided program is the best way for young athletes to return to sports,” Dr. Shah said.

Your teen athlete’s care team will recommend a plan for gradually returning to activities at a pace that reduces the odds of injuring the joint again. Going slowly also helps your teen rebuild confidence in their body.

To monitor progress, your provider may ask your teen to:

  • Keep a journal recording their activities, pain levels and how they feel after exercising.
  • Listen to their body and scale back activities if they notice pain, discomfort or swelling.
  • Check-in regularly so they can make any adjustments to the plan. Be sure your teen is open and honest about how their recovery is going. Having a health care provider manage their recovery can help you both feel better about safely returning to the activities they love.

Preventing future injuries

You’ll want your teen athlete to take steps to avoid reinjuring their joint. Preventing injuries can keep them on the field or court so they can play with confidence.

To help them maintain their strength and progress, encourage them to:

  • Warm up before exercise to increase blood flow and flexibility and prepare their muscles and joints for movement.
  • Follow a well-rounded conditioning program to strengthen their muscles, improve their endurance and enhance their fitness.
  • Include stretching and flexibility exercises to help keep their joints healthy.
  • Eat a balanced diet rich in nutrients that support muscle recovery, immune function and overall well-being.
  • Get enough rest so their body can heal and rejuvenate.
  • Stay hydrated since dehydration can lead to muscle cramps and fatigue.
  • Listen to their body and talk to a health care provider or a sports medicine professional if they notice any pain or discomfort.
  • Cross-train to reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve overall fitness.

Managing mental well-being

Taking time away from sports can be frustrating for teen athletes. They may face emotional challenges such as:

  • Loss of identity: They may feel a void without sports in their life.
  • Impatience: Recovery can happen slowly. 
  • Depression and anxiety: These mental health conditions can come from the emotional toll of a long recovery.

It can help to encourage your teen to:

  • Cultivate a positive mindset: Patience can help your teen have a positive mindset during their recovery journey. A hopeful outlook can help with healing.
  • Build emotional resilience: Being able to mentally manage the ups and downs of recovery can be just as important as the healing inside their body.
  • Address fear and anxiety: “Sometimes fear and anxiety about another injury limit a return to sports. Sports psychologists can help athletes cope with these emotional challenges,” Dr. Shah said.
  • Get support from friends and family: Loved ones can encourage your teen and help them enjoy other aspects of their lives.
  • Connect with counseling: Professionals can help your teen cope with the emotional challenges of recovery.
  • Join a support group: It can be comforting for your teen to connect with other athletes facing a similar challenge.

The bottom line

Osteochondritis dissecans is a joint problem where a small piece of bone and cartilage can detach from a larger bone. It can be caused by overuse and it can sideline young athletes.

With physical therapy, rehabilitation and sometimes surgery, athletes can get back into the game in about six months. Good follow-up care can help keep the condition from happening again.

If your teen athlete has joint pain that you think could be caused by OCD, talk to their provider or connect with an orthopedic specialist at Banner Health.

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