More than 60 million youth across the country participate in some form of organized athletics, according to The National Council of Youth Sports. This means, 60 million youth sports parents who have kids on the fields, courts and mats, who may have concerns about what can happen to their young ones.
More than 87 percent of parents worry about the risk of injury to their children, according to a study done by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program.
With the increased emphasis on competitive success, specialization in one sport and greater propensity for specialty sports camps, weight training programs or speed schools, risks are on the rise related to overuse injuries. Researchers for the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) found an excessive focus on early intensive training and competition rather than skill development can lead to overuse injuries and burnout in young athletes.
Researchers defined overuse injuries as being “due to repetitive submaximal loading of the musculoskeletal system when rest is not adequate to allow for structural adaptation to take place.”
The big risks
The same AMSSM study found specific risk factors for overuse injuries, of which it would be important for parents and coaches to be aware. The AMSSM outlines these four areas of which to be extra mindful:
Prior injury is a strong predictor of future overuse injury.
Overuse injuries may be more likely to occur during the adolescent growth spurt.
A history of amenorrhea (the absence of regular menstruation, or girls who haven’t begun menstruation by age 15) increases the risk of stress fractures.
Higher training volumes have shown to increase the risk of overuse injury in multiple sports.
Additional research is needed, but early studies show poor-fitting equipment, particularly when it has not been adjusted for changes in growth, may contribute to overuse injury. Researchers were also concerned with overscheduling or multiple competitive events in the same day or over several consecutive days because of the “ratio of workload to recovery time.”
Some sports are more prone to these types of injuries, according to a study by AMSSM, which found that runners have a 68 percent greater prevalence of overuse injuries. Common overuse injuries, however, can be found in a variety of sports.
Shoulder and elbow injuries
Shoulder injuries may occur in baseball, softball, tennis or volleyball players or swimmers, according to Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention (STOP) Sports Injuries organization.
STOP found that shoulder injuries may occur more frequently in young athletes due to imbalances in the shoulder, rotator cuff and back; most athletes have strong muscles in the front of the arm and shoulder rather than the back of the joint, which is responsible for slowing down the forward motion. This leads to additional strain on the rotator cuff muscles. STOP encourages parents, coaches and athletes not to ignore shoulder aches and pains, and found that using light weights to gradually strengthen and balance muscles will help the body recover.
Elbow injuries can also be the result of overuse, specifically in baseball and tennis, due to the repetitive motions. STOP said parents and coaches should be aware of signs of arm fatigue in young athletes; these include: consistently elevating pitches, changing the arm angle, missing locations more frequently, decreased velocity and using the lower body less during the activity. To avoid this type of overuse injury, many youth organizations have imposed required pitch counts and rest periods for youth baseball pitchers.
STOP offers the following recommendations to decrease the risk of overuse elbow injuries in young pitchers:
Rotate playing other positions besides pitcher
Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons
Do not pitch with any elbow or shoulder pain
Never use a radar gun, as it encourages over-throwing
Emphasize control, accuracy, and good mechanics
Do not rotate between pitcher-catcher or catcher-pitcher in the same game
Lower body injuries
Common lower body injuries occur most often in the knee or ACL, shins, Achilles tendon, hip, thigh or lower abdomen. Strong hip abductors may help keep the legs more stable to better protect the knee, so it may be worth asking your athletic trainer how to strengthen these muscles if they are found to be weaker. Additionally, STOP states that your quad-to-hamstring strength ratio should be 2 to 1, which could be another area to work on with a trainer.
STOP offered insight on the causes of shin splints to be on the lookout for: rapid increase in training, poor flexibility or repetitive contact, such as running, on hard surfaces. As for Achilles injuries, athletes are most at risk if they try to reach high levels of performance too quickly, particularly in the beginning of their sports season, rather than easing in to a greater workload. Hip injuries may be common among gymnasts and runners, due to the repetitive motions and large amounts of training in a single sport, which leads to strength and flexibility imbalances.
Prevention of certain overuse injuries may be specific to each sport, but experts have offered a number of guidelines of which all coaches, parents and athletes should be cognizant: STOP suggests following the “10 percent rule,” meaning do not increase a training program or activity more than 10 percent each week; this could include gradual changes in pacing, mileage, strength training or sport-specific activities such as pitching.
AMSSM encourages preseason-conditioning programs to allow an athlete’s body to “warm up” to the expectations of the particular sport. Additionally, careful monitoring should take place during the adolescent growth spurt, due to the increased risks during this time period.
More research is needed to determine the true risks of single–sport specialization, but experts suggest speaking with medical doctors if you have plans for your child to spend most of their time focusing on one sport.