Safe Play, Proper Training Key to Back-to-School Sports Safety

Northwestern Medicine
Orthopaedics August 22, 2013
Michael Terry, MDWhile some students can’t wait to hit the books on the first day of school, others are just as excited to dive into the pool or strap on football pads for the start of the fall sports season.

This year, young athletes will spend hours in the gym, pool or field. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than seven million teenagers participate in high school sports. However, these athletes also suffer an estimated two million injuries annually resulting in 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations. Injury has potential to not only ruin an athlete’s season, but in some cases cause long lasting problems. While not every injury can be avoided, Northwestern Medicine® experts encourage student athletes and their parents to focus on safe play and proper training to ensure a healthy, successful sports season.

“Injuries don’t just happen during games,” said Michael Terry, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and associate professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “More than 60 percent of sports-related injuries occur during practice, so careful conditioning is important to protect from injury. We are seeing young athletes specializing in their respective sports and positions earlier than ever before; since they are still growing and developing, proper training and preparation take on even greater importance to avoid injury. It’s never too early to have kids focusing on sports safety and their health.”

While there has been a lot of attention given to concussion prevention, sprains and strains are still the most common student athlete injuries, according to the Academy of Pediatrics.

“Repeated damage to the same anatomic area can culminate in tendinitis, bursitis and other injuries, such as stress fractures,” Terry said. “Overuse injuries are more common in repetitive motion, as seen in swimming, running or dance. This is in contrast to acute injuries, which are more common in contact collision sports such as football or hockey.”

Unlike acute injuries, overuse injuries develop slowly overtime because of repetitive stress on tendons, muscles, bones or joints. Examples of overuse injuries are Little League elbow, runner’s knee, shin splints and tendinitis. Often hard to recognize because athletes dismiss the early signs as minor aches and pains, when not treated properly overuse injuries run the risk of benching young athletes as well as causing long term damage and diminished quality of life.

“Once a sport season ends, cross train in other sports to maintain fitness, develop other skills, avoid chronic repetitive injuries and become a better well-rounded athlete,” Terry said. “And it’s always important to maintain cardiovascular fitness year round.”

To ensure a safe sports season preparation should begin even before the start of the school year. Young athletes should ease into training, starting with cardiovascular workouts to build stamina then progressing to strength training that targets the specific muscles needed for their sport. When in training, young athletes should focus on three major factors that affect sport performance: hydration, nutrition, and rest.

Acute injuries occur from a single traumatic event, such as a collision with another athlete or a misstep that strains a ligament or muscle. Examples of acute injuries are fractures, concussions, sprains and strains, dislocations or tears. While acute injuries are often harder to avoid, particularly in contact sports, teaching proper technique and emphasizing safe play can limit the risk of injury. Properly caring for equipment and assuring it works and fits correctly can also help avoid injury. Even when conscious of proper conditioning and safe training, most competitive athletes will experience an injury at some point. Recognizing the signs of an injury and listening to one’s body will help limit damage and hasten recover.

“When athletes dismiss injuries, not only does it threaten ending their season but also future ones,” said Terry. “Injuries assessed early often have shorter recovery times and better outcomes. The pressure on students to perform well all the time, even on young athletes, is immense; many kids are their harshest critic and feel pressure to play through pain. Whether you’re playing football for the Bears or a T-ball for the park district, it should be fun. ”
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