Organized youth sports are a healthy rite of passage for many children, with more than 30 million boys and girls participating in the United States every year. As sports seasons get longer and the level of play more intense, sports injuries are becoming more and more common.
Sports and recreational activities account for more than 2.6 million emergency room visits each year among children, ages 19 and under, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also notes that football, basketball, baseball and soccer account for 80 percent of sports-related emergency room visits for children.
The good news is that experts say half of sports-related injuries among children are preventable. Definite steps can be taken to reduce the risk of injury in all types of sports.
“Playing sports should be fun, which is why safety is so important. No one wants to see their son or daughter suffer an injury that could have been avoided with proper training or equipment.”
The three types of sports-related injuries that children sustain are acute injuries, overuse injuries and re-injuries:
- Acute injuries are usually traced to a single traumatic event. Among younger children, sports-related injuries are usually bruises, sprains and strains. Older children are more likely to sustain more severe injuries, such as broken bones and torn ligaments. Brain injury and damage to the eyes can also occur.
- Overuse injuries are often the result of repetitive actions that put too much stress on developing bones and muscles. These injuries range from “Little League elbow” and “swimmer’s shoulder” to shin splints and anterior knee pain.
- Re-injuries occur when you return to a sport before an injury has properly healed.
These tips will help your young athletes stay safe, without taking the fun out of activities:
You’d take your car to a mechanic before embarking on a big road trip. The same should go for athletes in the preseason. Getting a physical exam before the season starts allows for screening, prevention and treatment of any condition that could hinder participating in a youth sport.
“Sports physicals are an opportunity to look at the child from head to toe, to make sure everything is working the way it should and anticipate any hidden problems,” says Dr. Berger.
Scripps offers sports physicals through its pediatricians and family medicine physicians, and at Scripps HealthExpress walk-in clinics at Scripps Clinic and Scripps Coastal Medical Center locations across San Diego County.
Make sure your child warms up properly before any sports activity.
“Warming up requires a careful approach,” Dr. Berger explains. “Girls are much more prone to knee ACL injuries than boys and should exercise particular care in sports that involve quick direction changes, like soccer and basketball. A short plyometric warm-up can reduce ACL injuries by as much as nine times in female athletes. I also recommend 15 minutes of plyometric stretching three times per week.”
Make sure your child drinks plenty of water and cools down properly at the end of a sports activity, as hydration helps prevent cramps and spasms.
Qualified adults should always supervise team sports. “Make sure the coach is someone who is committed to safety first and can teach proper techniques,” Dr. Berger says.
Most overuse injuries are due to poor training or technique. “Work with your physician or coach to make sure the activity won’t cause chronic or recurrent problems,” he adds.
Sports-related injuries can occur as a result of poorly maintained or ill-fitting equipment. Make sure your child has access to proper equipment such as helmets, pads, protective eyewear and mouth guards. Properly maintained equipment can help prevent severe injuries, such as head trauma, eye damage or broken bones.
In addition to using appropriate equipment, children should also participate in activities that are age appropriate.
“You want to optimize your performance to get the most out of practice or training while trying to prevent damage,” Dr. Berger says. “For example, in baseball too much throwing can cause injury so it’s important to monitor pitch counts during practices and games. And prepubescent athletes should focus on doing repetitions, steering clear of strength training until after puberty.”
Make sure playing surfaces are properly maintained and suited for the activities being played. Playing fields that are full of holes and ruts could cause a child to fall and get hurt.
Your child will often let you know when he or she is hurt, but some will try to tough it out and continue playing a sport at the risk of injury. Watch for signs of injury, such as appearing to be in pain when moving a body part or trouble breathing during a sporting activity.
“If an acute injury is affecting a child’s function, first aid should be given right away,” Dr. Berger says. “The child or parents should contact a physician immediately for further assistance.”
If your child’s pain is due to overuse, his or her physician can determine whether it’s necessary to see a sports medicine specialist. However, if their injury appears severe, your child should be taken to the nearest hospital emergency department.
“It’s important to consider the future,” adds Dr. Berger. “We don’t want an injury that will affect them for the rest of their lives.”
This applies not just to getting enough sleep and downtime between games, but throughout the year. If your child plays sports year-round, let him or her know it’s okay to take a season off. Year-round athletes are more likely than others to incur overuse injuries.
“Our muscles need time to relax,” Dr. Berger explains. “Any part you use over and over, whether in a person or a car, is going to wear down.”
Cross-training and playing other sports can help young athletes avoid general and overuse injuries.
Dr. Berger says any discussion about youth sports safety should include reminders about concussion risks and prevention. Concussion dangers continue to make headlines, and for good reason—even though concussions are considered a “mild” form of traumatic brain injury, side effects can be serious and long-lasting.
No helmet can prevent all concussions, but wearing one is still a good idea, and a few good habits can further reduce the risk. Athletes should try to limit contact with other players, the cause of two-thirds of sports-related concussions according to the CDC. They should also play clean and without aggression, especially during the high school years, when one in four concussions are caused by illegal or aggressive play.
Coaches and school personnel should be educated about the causes, signs and symptoms of concussions. It’s also important that every player be encouraged to report possible concussions to an adult, and to stay off the field following a bump to the head until a doctor gives the green light.
“A concussion is like a brain sprain,” says Dr. Berger. “You wouldn’t go back on the field with a sprained ankle, and you shouldn’t go back out with a sprained brain.”
While sports-related injuries are a fact of life, this should not deter parents from getting their children involved in a school sport program or youth sport league.
Playing sports is a fun way for children to get exercise and reduce their risk of developing health problems related to inactivity, such as obesity.
“Sports help children build social skills, learn team skills and develop a general sense of well-being,” Dr. Berger says. “But in order to make sure they get the most out of the experience, it’s important to make safety the number one priority.”