In recent years, doctors have begun to see a significant increase in overuse injuries in children. In most cases, these injuries are associated with sports-related activity.
Sports participation promotes the physical and emotional well being of children, and also encourages the lifelong habit of exercise. Although the benefits of athletic activity are significant, too much activity can lead to injury.
Overuse injuries occur gradually over time, when an athletic activity is repeated so often, areas of the body do not have enough time to heal between playing. For example, overhand pitching in baseball can be associated with injuries to the elbow, and swimming is often associated with injuries to the shoulder.
Because young athletes are still growing, they are at a greater risk for injury than adults. The consequences of overdoing a sport can include injuries that impair growth, and may lead to long-term health problems.
When a young athlete repeatedly complains of pain, a period of rest from the sport is necessary. If pain persists, it is important to seek proper medical treatment. To ensure the best possible recovery, athletes, coaches, and parents must follow safe guidelines for returning to the game.
Overuse injuries occur in a wide range of sports, from baseball and basketball to track, soccer, and gymnastics. Some of these injuries are unique to a certain sport, such as throwing injuries of the elbow and shoulder that are prevalent in baseball players. The most common overuse injuries involve the knee and foot.
Overuse injuries can affect muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, and growth plates. In children, these structures are still growing, and the growth is generally uneven. Bones grow first, which pulls at tight muscles and tendons. This uneven growth pattern makes younger athletes more susceptible to muscle, tendon, and growth plate injuries.
Growth plates are the areas of developing cartilage where bone growth occurs in children. The growth plates are weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons. Repetitive stress can lead to injury of the growth plate and disrupt the normal growth of the bone.
As organized youth athletics has grown in popularity, the pressure to compete has led to children specializing in one sport only. In generations past, children changed sports with the seasons throughout the year, but today it is common for a child to play just one sport year-round. Many children play on more than one team at the same time, as well.
When a child participates in just one sport throughout the year, he or she continually uses the same muscle groups and applies unchanging stress to specific areas of the body. This can lead to muscle imbalances that, when combined with overtraining and inadequate periods of rest, put children at serious risk for overuse injuries.
Coaches and parents should be aware of the more common signs of overuse injury. These include:
• Pain. This pain cannot be tied to an acute injury, such as from a fall. The pain often increases with activity
• Changes in form or technique
• Decreased interest in practice