How to keep young athletes off the DL this summer

How to keep young athletes off the DL this summerMost of us have probably seen or heard the sad story of a kid who has to spend the whole summer on the sideline in a cast, sling, or on crutches while watching all the other kids run and play and well … be kids. As the temperatures get warmer, kids are going to be outside playing — and getting hurt. While most of these bumps and bruises likely can be handled with a bandage and some TLC, it’s important to remember that kids are not just little adults.

In our Sports Medicine Program, we typically think of injuries as occurring in two different ways:

  • Acute injuries: These occur as the result of a single event, such as a twisted knee, rolled ankle or stubbed toe
  • Chronic injuries: These have a more gradual onset, typically from overuse. Think, “My knee is sore,” after playing several soccer matches over a few days.

While there can be overlap in how to prevent and manage these types of injuries, they certainly are not identical. Here are some basic thoughts on the differences between acute and chronic injuries:

Acute injuries: Sprains, strains and fractures

Sprains are injuries to the ligaments, which attach bones to other bones, while strains affect muscles or tendons, which work together to control joint movement. Kids have open growth plates, which aren’t as strong as ligaments, muscles or tendons in adults and tend to get injured more easily. A fractured growth plate in a developing athlete might only be a sprain or strain in an adult.

Learn more: How growth plates impact broken bones in children

When dealing with these types of injuries, think RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) for at least first day or two, especially is swelling is present. If there is swelling or discoloration, or if the injury leads to a change in mechanics (e.g., limping) it should be evaluated.

There isn’t always much that can be done to prevent these sorts of injuries, however most treatments are centered around improving flexibility and strength. Specifically, attention is paid to strengthening the core (strong hips more than six-pack abs) to prevent lower body injuries, and strengthening the muscles around the shoulder blade to prevent upper body injuries.

Learn more: Sprains and strains in young athletes

Chronic injuries

One troubling trend I’ve seen lately is the drastic rise in injuries stemming from young athletes simply overdoing it. Too many pitches thrown, too many miles run — this kind of repetitive motion, impact or force can have severe negative long-term effects on developing bones and muscles. Many overuse conditions even have names that relate to the activity that causes them: Little League shoulder and elbow, jumper’s knee, etc.

If left untreated, what starts as pain related to stress at a growth center eventually can turn into a fracture. Old-school thoughts such as “no pain, no gain” and “tough it out” can be dangerous to the developing athlete. The good news is, most chronic/overuse injuries typically resolve with rest, and improved flexibility and strength.

Follow these do’s and don’ts to prevent injury

  • Do a full-body warm-up and dynamic stretching before participating
  • Don’t go full speed right away. Follow a weekly 10 percent rule of increasing your training program or activity.
  • Do wear proper footwear and use well-maintained equipment.
  • Don’t compete in the same sport all year long. Take breaks and vary your exercises to keep your muscles rested and fresh.
  • Do eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of sleep.
  • Don’t play through the pain. Untreated injuries caused by overuse can result in stress injury and damage to growth plates.

There’s no better way to spend the summer than being outside and active. With just a little planning and consideration, your young athlete can stay on the field and off the disabled list.

Kyle Scharer, MS, LAT- Kyle Scharer, MS, LAT, athletic trainer, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Kyle is a nationally certified and state-licensed athletic trainer in the Sports Medicine Program at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. He is a member of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Wisconsin Athletic Trainers’ Association.


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