According to the National Alliance of Youth Sports, more than 30 million children participate in team and individual sports each year. The school year is peppered with sporting activities—from cheer-leading and track to football and soccer. They are all fun ways to improve physical fitness and hand-eye coordination, while teaching children determination and teamwork. Unfortunately, these activities are also some of the most frequent causes of youth injuries.
Annually, more than 3.5 million sports-related injuries in kids require medical attention, according to the National SAFE KIDS Campaign. However, many of these injuries are preventable.
Since younger athletes are still growing, their bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are more likely to be affected by minor accidents. As children get older, the rate and severity of sports-related injuries increases. The most common types of sport-related injuries in children are ankle sprains, shoulder strains, concussions, dehydration and patellofemoral pain syndrome, which is related to knee strain and injury. With proper precautions, young athletes can play sports knowing their bodies are in the best physical condition.
Below are some measures young athletes, their parents and coaches can take to prevent some sports-related injuries:
- Ensure children get physicals before they begin practicing or playing sports. It’s important to know if there are any underlying health conditions that may interfere with the level of activity a child can achieve.
- As with any physical activity, participants should drink at least 12 ounces of water 30 minutes before the activity begins. Continue to hydrate throughout, as well as 20 minutes following the activity.
- Require at least a 10-minute warm up before any strenuous physical activity to raise the heart rate gradually—not suddenly—and increase blood flow to the muscles.
- Athletes should stretch both before and after the activity. They should hold each stretch for 10 to 15 seconds for maximum effectiveness. Make sure they stretch their entire bodies—stretching the legs will only help warm up the lower body.
- If athletes complain of exhaustion or pain, listen to them and do not force them to play through the pain. Adults are taught to listen to their bodies and know their limits—there is no exception for children.
- Be sure someone on the coaching or training staff is certified in CPR and first aid.
- Kids of the same age can differ in size, maturity and strength. Take extra caution when children are competing with kids who are more physically advanced, and avoid that situation if possible.
- For younger athletes, make sure practices are suited to the sport they play. It’s critical to ensure they are receiving the proper conditioning that will allow their bodies to adapt so they can continue playing for years to come.
- Ensure athletes are wearing and using the appropriate safety equipment, even during practice. Be sure to adjust the equipment to fit the child. If something does not fit properly, it will be less likely to prevent injury.
Keep in mind that contact sports have higher rates of injury, but individual sports injuries tend to be more severe. As soon as an accident occurs, appropriate action should be taken. For treatment of simple injuries, apply the R.I.C.E. technique—rest, ice, compression and elevation—but never hesitate to take an injured athlete to a hospital.
Even if an injury seems minor, listen to the child. If the child complains of persistent pain following an accident, or if their “minor” injury prevents them from performing at their normal level, it is time to see a doctor. The faster an injury is treated, the faster the body can begin to heal and recover.
By Lewis Leibovich, M.D.
Lewis Leibovich, M.D., is a physician with St. David’s Urgent Care Pflugerville.