How to Prevent Sports Injuries

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To avoid injury, have kids take some time off their primary sport throughout the year. Credit: Corbis

School is back in full swing, and for many kids that means sports are, too. While athletics are a great way for kids to get some fresh air, exercise and relieve stress, increasingly they are a source of injury, too.

While a spate of recent studies have shown an increase in the number of school athletes visiting emergency rooms with concussions, it's the more common injuries such as ankle sprains and knee injuries that sports doctors see the most, Dr. Teri McCambridge, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, tells ParentDish.

Surprisingly, it's not elite athletes who are filling most of the chairs in her waiting room, but the youngest ones. "Those are the kids who are probably most at risk," she says, explaining that coaches at the high school level have to be trained and certified, as do school athletic directors. It's the recreational leagues, where volunteer coaches often have no knowledge of sports medicine and may not even know much about the sport they're coaching.

And just because they're small doesn't mean they can't do real damage. "Younger kids are a little bit more at risk because they're growing," McCambridge says. "You fracture a growth plate, your long-term risk is higher. "

Perhaps the biggest source of worry for McCambridge and other doctors is the early age at which children are now specializing in a sport and playing it year-round -- something the AAP has opposed in several policy statements. "We recommend not specializing in one sport until high school," McCambridge tells ParentDish. "Do one sport at a time, play for one team at a time." That means not playing in a recreational league and a travel league simultaneously, she says.

Because more young children are playing a single sport all year long, they are sustaining an increasing number of overuse injuries. "We're seeing stress fractures in 10- and 11-year-olds," McCambridge says.

The AAP's policy statement on the subject also recommends taking two to three months off from the child's main sport each year to avoid overuse, overtraining and burn out. That time off can be broken up throughout the year, McCambridge says.

"Give them a chance to rest," Dr. Mark Halstead, a member of AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness tells ParentDish. "You don't see any professional athlete who does their sport year round."

Of course, many coaches push kids into early specialization and onto multiple teams. "That's when I think we as parents need to try to change the rules," McCambridge says. If you absolutely can't avoid it, make sure your child is mixing up the kinds of play he or she is doing. For example, if your son plays baseball and is a pitcher -- the position that is the worst for long-term use -- don't let him pitch for more than one team. "That's where, as parents, it's our job to make sure that we don't listen to the coaches and take charge of our kids," she says.

But let's face it: Even the child of the most careful parent in the world might still get injured. So how do you prevent injuries, and what do you do about them once they happen? "Learn what are the common injuries in your sport and learn prevention techniques," McCambridge advises. The website of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has useful educational material on its website, she says. And Halstead advises making sure kids are getting enough iron and calcium in their diets.

And the "no pain, no gain" mantra? Throw it out -- for kids of any age. And don't give kids anti-inflammatory medicines so they can play through pain, McCambridge warns.

From middle school on up, the injuries become more adult-like, and doctors begin to see things like dislocated shoulders and torn ACLs. But while injuries may differ from age to age, the treatment is the same. First, rest, rest, rest, McCambridge advises. A little soreness the day after a workout is perfectly normal, but any pain lasts all day and persists for more than a week or two should be seen by a doctor. But wait until then. "I wouldn't make anyone come in until they tried resting," McCambridge tells ParentDish.

If an injury or pain is affecting performance, a child is limping or can't put weight on a leg or a foot, or can't use his arm should be seen more quickly, Halstead says.

That advice doesn't apply to concussions, which happen year round but are most prevalent in the fall when kids are playing football and soccer. Those need to be taken seriously; a concussion is a brain injury, and can have effects that parents and teachers may not recognize. "The brain is inside where no one can see," Halstead says. "Kids go back to school and may look fine but their brain is not functioning on all cylinders. These kids really do have troubles."

Common symptoms of concussion include headaches -- although not everyone gets one -- feeling dizzy or foggy, having trouble concentrating, sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights and having a hard time remembering things, Halstead says.

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