Risk of Injuries and Prevention for Young Athletes
Highly recognized events like the Olympics bring the hope that witnessing as well as celebrating dedicated athletes at the top of their game, will inspire many young people to take up sport and physical activities that help them develop confidence, live more satisfying lives, and also secure long-term health by reducing their risk for developing chronic illnesses such as: diabetics, obesity, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
But unfortunately, if they do not take congruent measures; young athletes may instead, end up in pain, on a different path to poor health, due to an avoidable sports injury. In fact, a former president of the American Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM), James R. Andrew, once said in May this year that the US has experienced a magnificent rise in the number of young people taking up the sport. Also, estimates show that 3.5 million children aged 14 and under receive medical treatment for sport-related injuries, while high-school athletes account for another 2 million every year.
“This makes sports the leading cause of adolescent injury. Along with time away from school and work, these injuries can have far-reaching effects,” said Andrews.
In this article, we would look at some of the common as well as less familiar injuries experienced by young athletes in the course of their sporting activities. Furthermore, we would also consider some methods and measures on avoiding and minimizing injury: and then wound it off with a list of tips for preventing sports injury in young athletes.
Common Sport Injuries
According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health in the US, the most preeminent sports injuries occur due to accidents, poor training practices or misuse of gear or equipment. People can also hurt themselves if they are not in good shape; or because they do not warm up or stretch enough. Some injury experts in the US have said they are also seeing a lot of young athletes being exposed to injuries because of overuse and doing too much. This may partially explain the abounding numbers that drop out of the sport by the time they get to their eighth grade. The most common sports injuries among many others are:
- Knee injuries
- Swollen muscles
- Achilles tendon injuries
- Pain along the shin-bone, and
- Fractures and dislocations.
Even though injuries in young athletes are strongly similar to the ones that affect adults, they can’t always be treated in the same way because of their bodies which are not fully developed.
Let us consider knee injury for example one common type of knee injury is damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) which is a severe injury that occurs most often in athletes who play football and other contact sports. Some twenty years back, doctors were seeing few children or adolescents with ACL injuries. Today, these injuries are more common because more youngsters are taking up sports earlier, and pushing themselves with a more competitive front.
Another reason for the rise in young people with ACL injury, says researchers from the hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York City, is that many more young athletes are specializing in particular sports activities, putting them at risk of injuries which are typically only seen in professional athletes. However, this type of knee injury in young people arouses much concern because it is not easy to repair in growing bodies; for instance, ACL reconstructive surgery that works well in adults can potentially cause incongruent limb length or other deformities in growing organizations. Hence, the reason why the best course has often been “benign neglect.” Notwithstanding, clinicians are beginning to become aware that not operating can also lead to problems, such as early arthritis.
Indeed, there are alternatives to conventional ACL reconstructive surgery, which have lower risks of damage in growing bodies, such as the All-Inside, All-Epiphyseal ACL Reconstruction (AE), but these are not commonly available. Therefore, clinicians are calling for more research to be done into sports injuries in younger people.
Back and Neck Injuries
Back and neck injuries are not so familiar in young athletes, but when they occur, they can cause much frustration to the athlete. The athlete must complete a comprehensive and demanding rehabilitation program before they can return to competitive sport; in some cases, they never get the opportunity to return to their given sport.
It is observed that most back and neck injuries in athletes are sprains of ligaments or strains of muscles. Aside from trauma experienced, these are often due to athletic overuse, improper body mechanics and technique, being out of condition, or inadequate stretching. The athlete will complain of back pain when they are active and performing and will feel relief when resting. However, occasionally, a more serious condition can have similar symptoms as neck and back pains. Because of this, proper treatment of back and neck injuries in young athletes should always include a thorough evaluation by a doctor, using imaging studies when necessary.
According to the North American Spine Society, the more serious back and neck injuries experienced by young athletes include, but not limited to the following:
- Spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis: a particular defect in the vertebra of the spine (spondylolysis), where one vertebra slips relative to another (spondylolisthesis). A common cause of back pain in young athletes, particularly gymnasts because they have to twist and over-extend their spines.
- Stinger(also known as “burner” or “nerve pinch”): which occurs when forcing the head back and to the side compresses a nerve of the spinal cord in the neck, or when forcing the head sideways away from the shoulder over-stretches the nerves in the neck and shoulder. This is most common in football and wrestling. The injury usually goes unreported because symptoms can resolve suddenly and quickly. Nevertheless, it can recur and lead to persistent pain or arm weakness if not treated properly.
- Disc injury: a common cause of back pain in adult athletes; though, much less among young athletes, it may or may not be associated with sciatica (shooting pain down the leg). A careful diagnosis, including MRI scans, can help to rule out other possible causes that can result in disc injury in young bodies that are still maturing.
- Scheuermann’s Disease (also called Juvenile Kyphosis): another common cause of back pain in young athletes during puberty that occurs in the mid-back as opposed to the lower back, and leads to a roundness of the back that worsens to a dome shape upon being bent forward. Exercises, usually, are not sufficient to correct this disease; and if wearing a brace does not relieve the pain, surgery may be required, after which the athlete will likely be unable to resume their given sport.
Focus on Body’s Imbalances
Stew Smith, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, former Navy SEAL, as well as the author of several fitness and self-defense books, advocates “prehab” as a way to prevent common injuries from daily life and sport. He says explicitly that a prehab program must focus on a person’s body imbalances. There are many natural imbalances in the body since for any movement your body makes; there are two or more groups of muscles or joints that are stretching to make or oppose that motion.
Most imbalances experienced in the body occur in the following regions of the body:
- Abdomen or lower back: too many people when working out; focus on the stomach muscles and neglect the lower back.
- Chest and upper back or rear shoulder: many young are found doing this. They try to “bench press a truck” but neglect their upper backs and rear deltoids. This often results in the shoulder injury and a sloping upper back.
- Thighs and hamstrings: you need a very planned and delicate combination of exercises so that the hind parts of the legs don’t get underworked. Hamstring injuries usually occur when sprinting or jumping, and it is the upper side of the hamstring that suffers the injury on most occasions. A smart prehab (complete form being prehabilitation) program would include stretching that incorporates the top and bottom of the hamstring connections.
Tips for Preventing Injury in Young Athletes
The injury must be avoided if we must maintain the socio-cultural impact that sports have on athletes, especially the younger ones in our society. The American Academy of Pediatrics, to help athletes prevent injuries, recommended the following:
- Time off: take at least a day off a week to give your body time to recuperate from the rigor it has been through during training.
- Take breaks: during practice sessions and games to limit the risk of injury; and consequentially prevent heat illness.
- Use the correct gear: this should be right and appropriate for the sport in view; for instance, pads for neck, shoulders, elbows, chest, knees, and shins; helmets, mouthpieces, face guards, protective cups, and eyewear. Nevertheless, do not become too comfortable or careless enough to take superfluous risky actions because you are wearing protective gear.
- Drink plenty of fluids: always drink enough water or before, during and after exercise or play to avoid heat illness; wearing light clothing also helps a lot. Furthermore, coaches and trainers should reduce or stop practices or competitions when heat or humidity is high.
- Build muscle strength: do your conditioning exercises during practice to strengthen the muscles you use during play.
- Increase flexibility: develop a habit of always stretching before and after games and practice.
- Use the proper technique: coaches and trainers should reinforce this during the playing season.
- Play safe: coaches and leaders should enforce strict rules against sports activities which may be too harsh for the body, especially in football and ice-hockey.
Young athletes should be judged based on diligence, sportsmanship, and hard work. They should be rewarded for their efforts and for improving their skills rather than be punished or criticized for losing a game or competition. The primary goal of every sport should be to have fun and learn lifelong physical activity skills. This is pertinent to note because it is also expedient that athletes maintain a healthy frame of mind; and not just a physical state of wellness.