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Who Is at Risk for Injuries in Sports?

by Betsy Kellerman, ATC/LAT, Manager of the Overland Park Regional Medical Center Sports Medicine and Concussion programs

Participation in any sport, whether it's Pee-Wee soccer or the high school football playoffs, can teach kids to stretch their limits and learn sportsmanship and discipline. But many sports also carry the potential for injury. By knowing the causes of these injuries and how to prevent them, you can help make athletics a positive experience for your child.

Kids can be particularly at risk for sports injuries for a variety of reasons. Kids, especially those younger than eight years old, are less coordinated and have slower reaction times than adults because they are still growing and developing. Also, kids mature at different rates, with differences in height and weight between kids of the same age, so when those kids play sports together, there can be an increased risk of injury.

Preventing sports injuries

You can help protect your kids from being injured by following some simple guidelines:

  • Use proper equipment: It's important for kids to use proper equipment and safety gear that is the correct size and fits well. Ask your child's coach about the appropriate helmets, shoes, mouth guards, athletic supports (cups) and padding. Although not a league or school requirement for many sports, consider using protective eyewear, like shatterproof glasses.
  • Maintain and check appropriateness of playing surfaces: Check that playing fields are not full of holes and ruts that might cause kids to fall or trip. Kids doing high-impact sports, like basketball and running, should do them on surfaces like tracks and wooden basketball courts, which can be more forgiving than surfaces like concrete.
  • Employ adult supervision and commitment to safety: Any team sport or activity that kids participate in should be supervised by qualified adults. The team coach should have training in first aid and CPR, and the coach's philosophy should promote players' well-being over winning. (A coach with a win-at-all-costs attitude may encourage kids to play through injury and may not foster good sportsmanship.) Be sure that the coach enforces playing rules and requires that safety equipment be used at all times.
  • Prepare properly: Just as you wouldn't send a child who can't swim to a swimming pool, it's important not to send kids to play a sport that they're unprepared to play. Make sure that they know how to play the sport before going out on the field. Kids should be adequately prepared with warm-ups and training sessions before practices and before games. This will help ensure that they have fun and reduce the chances of an injury. They should also drink plenty of fluids and be allowed periods of rest during practices and games.

Common types of sports injuries

Three common types of sports injuries in kids and teens are acute injuries (like bruises, sprains and strains or broken bones), overuse injuries (like little league elbow, shin splints and swimmer’s shoulder) and reinjuries (which happen when athletes return to a sport before an injury is healed).

Causes of acute injuries

Acute injuries often happen because of a lack of proper equipment or the use of improper equipment. For example, without protective eyewear, eye injuries are extremely common in basketball and racquet sports. And many kids playing baseball and softball have suffered broken legs or ankles from sliding into immobile bases.

Causes of overuse injuries

Overuse injuries can be caused or aggravated by growth spurts or an imbalance between strength and flexibility, inadequate warm-up, excessive activity, playing the same sport year-round or multiple sports during the same season, improper technique or unsuitable equipment.

Causes of reinjuries

Athletes are at a much greater risk for reinjury when they return to the game before recovering fully. Doing so places stress upon the injury and forces the body to compensate for the weakness, which can put the athlete at greater risk for injuring another body part. Once the doctor has approved a return to the sport, make sure that your child properly warms up and cools down before and after exercise.

Sudden exertion also can cause reinjury, so your child should re-enter the sport gradually. Explain that easing back into the game at a sensible pace is better than returning to the hospital!

Treating sports injuries

Treatment of sports injuries depends on the type of injury.

The best thing you can do for your young athletes is play it safe. If an injury appears to affect basic functioning in any way — for example, if your child can't bend a finger, is limping or has had a change in consciousness — first aid should be given immediately. A doctor should then see your child. If the injury seems to be more serious, it's important to take your child to the nearest ER.

Regardless of the injury, remember when recovery is complete, your child's technique or training schedule might need to be adjusted to prevent the injury from flaring up again.

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