Many young people — boys and girls alike — begin playing competitive sports as early as age 5 to 6 or even younger. Estimates are that as many as 25 million young people participate in organized athletic programs at school, and another 20 million or so participate in community-based youth programs. And that doesn’t include untold millions of youngsters in pickup basketball games, sandlot baseball, backyard touch football, impromptu playground contests — the list goes on and on.
Most kids play sports for the sheer joy of competition, movement and action, but some see sports as a ticket to a college scholarship, or maybe even a career in professional sports.
But for far too many young people, the sports fast track leads to painful, sometimes serious injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2.6 million youths age 19 and younger are treated in hospital emergency departments each year for sports- and recreation-related injuries.
Another 5 million young people are seen by their personal physicians or urgent care centers. No one knows how many injuries to young athletes go unreported.
There’s not a single sport that bears the bulk of the blame for injuries to young athletes, although youths who participate in high-impact sports such as football, basketball, soccer, wrestling and even cheerleading seem more prone to injury than those who participate in other sports. Experts suspect that choosing to play only one sport all the time or several sports simultaneously are factors leading to what are called overuse injuries.
Common types of injuries
Mention the dangers of sports and most folks are likely to think first of concussion, and rightly so. A concussion is a traumatic brain injury. Research shows that younger athletes take a longer time to heal than adults after a concussion because their bodies are still growing. A second concussion can cause even more issues.
Thankfully, however, concussion is not the most common injury on the playing field. That dubious distinction, according to Richmond orthopaedist Paul G. Kiritsis, goes to strains and sprains. He says he treats more of these injuries than other types in his practice at OrthoVirgina. These include injuries to the body’s tendons and ligaments that can run the gamut from a sprained ankle to the dreaded ACL tear — damage to the anterior cruciate ligament in the knee that can require surgery and sideline an athlete for months.
Sprains versus strains
First, some basic definitions. A sprain is a stretched or torn ligament — the tough band of connective tissues that join the end of one bone with the end of another. A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. Muscle is made up of bundles of cells that contract and produce movement. A tendon is tissue that connects a muscle to a bone.
Sprains are usually caused when a fall or a blow to the body knocks a joint out of alignment. Knees, ankles and wrists are the areas of the body most susceptible to sprains, which announce themselves with pain, bruising, swelling and an inability to move a joint or a limb.
Strains happen when a muscle or tendon is pulled or twisted, usually by overstretching. Muscle and tendon in any part of the body can fall victim to strains, which can be felt as pain, muscle spasm, and weakness in the affected part of the body.
A much more serious injury, a rupture or tear in the knee's ACL, can require surgery to rebuild the joint. Whether the particular injury requires surgery or not, a good physical therapy program should help restore a young person’s range of motion in the knee, as well as his or her sense of balance.
Dr. Kiritsis notes that it’s perfectly normal for young people to suffer bumps and bruises when they engage in any physical activity.
“A young person might be playing basketball for three hours a day for a solid week, and he or she may develop sore knees,” he says. That’s more typical of an overuse injury, which is temporary damage to a bone, muscle, ligament or tendon that’s caused by repetitive stress without allowing rest and adequate time for the body to heal.
An overuse injury is damage to a bone, muscle, ligament or tendon due to repetitive stress without giving a growing body time to adequately rest and recover between games or practice sessions. “But when pain comes from a traumatic event, such as a collision, a fall or overextension, it’s something that will require more attention,” Dr. Kiritsis says.
Parents should learn to recognize the differences between a significant injury and more common aches and pains. One major telltale sign would be the inability to bear weight (more than a few steps). Other signs to look for include:
- Noticeable deformity in the injured joint.
- Tenderness, swelling or bruising over any bone.
- Any sensation of numbness, tingling or weakness in the injured area.
- Any noticeable difference in temperature between the affected joint and the same joint on the other side of the body.
Delaying Treatment Can Takes its Toll on Your Body
Taking action as soon as possible after suffering a tendon or ligament injury can be a big help in shortening healing time and preventing further injury. If the injury is to a weight-bearing joint such as a knee or an ankle, employ the RICE mnemonic: rest, ice, compression, elevation. Get off of the injury, wrap the joint in a compression bandage and apply ice. A good way to ice an injury is to apply cold (an ice pack, a bag of frozen ice, even a bag of frozen peas or corn kernels) for 10-20 minutes, remove the ice for about 10 minutes, and then reapply it. To avoid tissue damage, protect the skin with a wet cloth. Elevate the injured joint by propping up the joint if possible, preferably higher than the heart.
Of course, it's best to prevent the injury. Dr. Kiritsis says that strength training and conditioning programs are always important.
“Specifically, ACL injury prevention programs have been shown to prevent injury, especially in female athletes.”
Parents can help by making sure their children promptly report injuries or suspected injuries, seeing to it they have the proper protective equipment for the sport they are playing and making sure the playing field is in good condition, free of hazards.
Parents should also complete an emergency medical authorization form and provide parent contact information and permission for emergency medical care should their child need it.