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Kids And Sports: Preventing Overuse Injuries

Slice your oranges, unfold your chairs and rehearse your catchiest cheer. Across the country, millions of parents fill the sidelines, stadiums and auditoriums to anxiously watch their child play in a youth sport. Watching them play can be exciting, especially if your little one excels. For some, there is the hope that your child could earn a college scholarship or even a pro contract.

It’s long been proven that regular physical activity can help children and adolescents improve their health and wellbeing. It improves cognitive performance, reduces anxiety and depression and builds self-confidence. So, it’s no surprise that over the years organized sports have been on the rise, with nearly 30-45 million involved in youth sports in the U.S.

But, the increase in play has led to some other startling statistics about injuries among young athletes. More than 2.6 million children, ages 0-19 years old, are treated in emergency departments each year for sports and recreation-related injuries. Many young athletes are committed to becoming the best they can be at their favorite sport, but can too much time spent on one sport set them up for an overuse injury?

Serign Marong, MD, a Banner Health University Medical Center family medicine physician and former college athlete, explains what overuse injuries are and how you can help prevent them.

What Are Overuse Injuries?

Unlike acute injuries, which result from a single incident, overuse injuries in youth often occur during repetitive trauma to tendons, bones or joints. Many stem from training errors or improper technique. Overuse injuries are common in adolescents because their bodies are still developing and growing, Dr. Marong says, especially those in a single sport.

“A study found that young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport—such as a 15-year-old playing soccer for 16 hours a week or more—were 70 percent more likely to get a serious overuse injury,” Dr. Marong said. “We should be cautious about intense specialization.”

What Are Some Common Types of Overuse Injuries?

Football: The majority of overuse injuries in football players are orthopedic injuries that result from overexertion, repetitive stress and wear and tear, i.e., patellar tendonitis and shoulder and knee injuries.

Gymnastics: Specialization in this sport historically starts very young. Overuse injuries include tendonitis and bursitis in the elbows and wrists and can also have many long-term affects if left untreated.

Soccer: The most common overuse injury among soccer players is shin splints, heel pain and Achilles tendinitis.

How Can Parents and Coaches Help Prevent Injuries?

  1. Proper Technique and Gear: Wear appropriate and properly fitting equipment and reinforce proper form and technique.
  2. Warm Up and Stretch: Stretching exercises before and after games.
  3. Cross Train: Even if your child is dedicated to one sport, playing other sports or doing other exercises gives some of their muscle groups a rest while developing new ones. Dr. Marong suggests alternating hard and easy days.
  4. Take Breaks: Take a day or two off each week and slowly build activity when training for a season.
  5. Age vs. Hours: Don’t let your kids play one sport for more hours per week than their age.

What is the Benefit of Playing Multiple Sports?

Studies show that specializing early in a sport does not increase the chances of becoming an elite athlete,” Dr. Marong said. “Participation in multiple sports allows kids to work different parts of their bodies and allows socialization and new experiences.”

It’s great to have dreams for your child, but also be realistic that only a small percentage of athletes will play in college—even fewer in the pros. Dr. Marong added, “You can look at golf and tennis and see that many have been specializing for years. What you don’t see are the kids who are burnt out before even making it to college, whether by injury or pressure."

The most important thing, Dr. Marong says, is to focus on your child’s overall wellness. “Your goal as a parent should be to promote a well-rounded athlete who can enjoy physical activity for a lifetime.”

Is your child suffering from an acute or overuse injury? Find a Banner Health specialist in your area at bannerhealth.com.

Children's Health Sports Medicine