Sarah Lang-Rodean BS, CSCS
ECHN Strength and Conditioning Coach
While youth sports participation is at an all time high, when we look at the numbers, it’s not all good news. Approximately 45 million children ages 6 – 18 participate in some form of organized athletics. With the growing number of young athletes, increased attention is being given to overuse injuries in this population. Approximately half of all injuries evaluated in pediatric sports medicine clinics are associated with overuse.
An overuse injury can be defined as chronic injuries that occur with repetitive stress on the musculoskeletal system over the course of time without allowing time for adequate recovery. Pediatric athletes are prone to overuse injuries due to stresses placed on growing bone. External factors that contribute to these injuries include inappropriate increases in training, hard training surfaces or improper equipment. Internal factors include decreased muscle flexibility and strength or extremity malalignment.
Overuse injuries manifest in young athletes in a number of ways. The most common overuse injuries in the young athlete include an irritation of the growth plate, problems with tendons, stress fractures, and patellafemoral (knee) pain. Pain, decreased performance, limping and swelling are signs of overuse injuries that should be evaluated.
Another contributing factor to overuse injuries in young athletes is early specialization of sport. Young athletes are increasingly playing one sport year-round, with more athletes and earlier specialization; more overuse injuries are being seen. This year-round training results in children not giving their bodies’ adequate time to rest and recover. By participating in a single sport children are stressing the same muscles and tendons, in the same ways, over and over again. In addition, specialization is taking place before their bodies have matured and their interests have fully developed. A young person’s body might be ideally suited for one sport at age ten but after puberty it might be better suited for a different sport.
As a general guideline, athletes should take one month off, every six months if they play a year-round sport. This does not mean completely cutting out all activity, just resting and taking time off from the primary sport. Another solid rule of thumb for youth sport participation is one day off per week, one sport per season, one team per sport, and increase training intensity gradually over time. Young athletes are not mini adults or professional athletes, and they should not be training as so. Coaches and trainers must understand the unique structure of youth athletes and take proper safety precautions during sport practice and physical training, as well as follow an appropriate training progression that includes adequate rest and recovery time to ensure no athlete is at risk for overtraining.
Source: Andrew Gregory, M.D., FACSM. Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes. ACSM Fit Society Page. Volume 15. Issue 1. April 2013.