Two dangerous trends are on the rise in children’s health—a rapid increase in the number of youth sports injuries and a drop in the age of young athletes with overuse injuries. Paul Abeyta, M.D., a Sutter Health network orthopedic surgeon practicing at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Burlingame Center offers this advice on keeping your child safe on and off the field.
Injuries on the Rise
Every year 30 million children and teens participate in sports; some 3.5 million suffer some kind of injury out on the field or court.
“Kids are at risk for the same injuries as adults when they participate in sports,” Dr. Abeyta says. Some of the frequent procedures Dr. Abeyta performs on kids and teens are torn ACL reconstructions (a ligament in the knee often damaged in soccer), as well as repairs to the rotator cuff (muscles in the shoulder joint) and labrum (specialized tissue that lines the shoulder socket) which are often torn in baseball and football.
“One of the things we see a lot of, even in small children, are knee injuries such as a torn meniscus (a horseshoe-shaped piece of cartilage that pads the knee),” Dr. Abeyta says. “Repeat tears can lead to loss of articular cartilage around the bones, and both a repeatedly torn meniscus and loss of articular cartilage can result in arthritis later in life.”
Some tips he offers for parents who want to help keep their kids safe:
- Make sure children are adequately trained for their sport
- Use warm up and cool down
- Equip children with the right protective gear and make sure they wear that gear correctly.
- Play on a well-maintained court or field free of defects or divots.
Overuse Injuries in Kids
Nearly half of all sports injuries suffered by middle and high school-aged children are due to overuse and can be prevented. Overuse injuries occur from repeating the same motion over and over again.
“Historically, sports injuries in young children were typically traumatic—getting hit with a baseball, or falling and breaking a bone,” Dr. Abeyta says. “But we’re seeing repetitive injuries in kids as young as 7 or 8 years old, which is scary. What this means is that kids are working too hard. They’re starting sports at a younger age, and they’re being pushed year round without taking breaks.”
Younger children are a lot more vulnerable because they still have soft cartilage, undeveloped, weaker muscles, and they’re still growing, he explains.
“We see a lot of young children with injuries from gymnastics, which often starts kids out at a very early age,” he adds. “Gymnastics doesn’t really have an ‘off’ season so kids don’t get a chance to recover.”
Compounding the problem is that children in team sports also often play the same sport on multiple teams in the same season.
Trouble Signs to Watch For
Kids won’t always tell their parents that something is wrong, so parents must be vigilant. Signs to look for that might indicate an overuse injury include:
- Favoring one side of the body over the other
- Appearing to be in pain when using a certain body part
- Trouble sleeping
- Stiffness in muscles or joints
Some of the sports with the highest risk of overuse injuries for children are baseball, basketball, cheerleading, dancing, football, gymnastics, running, soccer, softball, swimming, tennis and volleyball, Dr. Abeyta says. To minimize the risks of these sports, encourage cross training.
“Cross training is a really important part of giving your child a chance to bounce back,” he says. “If they participate in a sport that stresses the upper extremities, like baseball, next season try putting them in a sport that works the lower extremities, like soccer. Most importantly, kids need to take time off. Parents need to recognize when their children are tired and make sure they have an opportunity to rest and recover between activities.”