In recent years ER docs and many other healthcare professionals have noticed an increase in sports-related injuries among school-aged children. Many kids are specializing in one sport at younger ages with more intensive training and schedules; others are playing many sports throughout the year with little or no downtime. Busy coaches have lots of kids under their supervision so parents need to stay aware of how their young athletes are doing physically and emotionally. Kids can get very caught up in the competition, doing their part, not letting the team down, not wanting to “miss out.” As parents, it’s our job to support and cheer our kids on, but also to recognize warning signs and check in when it’s time to slow down, or even (gulp) quit.

Last weekend I was with friends, watching their 13-year-old son play soccer in a very competitive league. I noticed that a boy on the opposing team was running and walking with a slight limp. His coach was urging him to run faster after the ball, and the young man was doing his best, but I could see that he was pushing through pain. During a break, I introduced myself to the boy and his parents and checked in on whether he was in pain. “Yes,” he said, “I fell at school and my hip really hurts.” His parents hadn’t noticed and were surprised. “I didn’t want to complain,” he explained. Luckily his parents pulled him out and found some ice for his hip.

There is a growing awareness of the dangers of even minor concussions in children, but over-use and repetitive stress injuries are more common. These are the type of injuries that growing children are particularly susceptible to. The growth plate areas at the ends of their long bones are still composed of soft cartilage, so are a prime spot for problems. Stress fractures, tendinitis, bursitis, and apophysitis (the medical term for inflammation and stress injuries where a muscle and its tendon attach to the growth plate), were rare when kids’ exercise was playing ball in a pick-up game, then riding bikes to the pool for a swim. Now, with the focus on more and more sports, traveling teams, all-stars and year-round participation in 1 sport, these are becoming more and more common. It is intense repetitive training during periods of growth that puts young bodies at risk.

“Any sport can produce an overuse injury,” Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago explained to ABC News. She warns that children should not play through pain, “Pain is a sign of injury, and it’s a sign that you need to rest.”

Young athletes need to learn that the sooner an injury is treated the faster they can get back in the game. Any swelling, loss of range of motion or strength should be evaluated by a healthcare provider, as well as minor injuries if recovery is not happening on its own in a few days. 

What More Can Parents Do? 

Know your coaches. Talk to your child’s coaches about safety and get an idea of their coaching philosophy. Are they an aggressive “must win” type who might encourage a player to play hurt?   Make sure your child has the strength, skill, and size to compete in a particular sport and level. Check out that the appropriate helmets, shoes, mouth guards, and all protective gear is in good condition and used correctly.

And to keep team sport safety in perspective – 50% of very serious injuries come from bicycling, skateboarding, or skating accidents, not organized sports. Even if they complain, insist your kids always wear a good quality helmet!

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