In the last 10 years, there has been a significant increase in the number of injuries and surgeries in young athletes. This is particularly important because young athletes' bodies are still growing, making them more vulnerable to injury and making surgery more complex. In addition, research demonstrates that injuries and surgeries in young athletes can lead to early onset osteoarthritis, showing up in their 20s and 30s.
In our current culture, sports are very important. Kids are starting earlier, playing the same sport year round, and practicing and playing longer with more intensity. They may feel pressure to "push through the pain". This puts young athletes at greater risk for overuse and acute injuries. In addition, poor conditioning, lack of adequate warm-up, exercising incorrectly, and poor body mechanics during practice and play, increases the possibility of overuse or acute injuries. And when athletes get injured or have surgery, they often return to play too quickly, making themselves even more vulnerable to re-injury. As a result, young athletes are burning out, incurring injuries that prevent further play, and are at risk for early onset osteoarthritis, a debilitating disease.
So what can parents, coaches and young athletes do?
First, it is imperative that athletes use Proper Body Mechanics during warm up, practice, play, and conditioning (strengthening and stretching). Doing exercises incorrectly can cause injuries. For example, one can injure a knee doing squats and lunges incorrectly. In addition, bouncing during stretches can put greater stress on joints and tendons.
If you have a child or player who has consistent pain or re-injuries, contact our office for an analysis of their body mechanics during play and practice. Not only can this prevent injury, it can help target weak areas that once resolved can result in improved performance. We also provide classes to instruct young athletes in proper body mechanics while strengthening and stretching.
Second, overuse injuries are the most common type of injury in young athletes and stem from playing the same sport year round, doing too much for too long at high intensity, being inadequately conditioned before the season, and using equipment incorrectly. Minimizing overuse injuries can be difficult in our culture as young athletes, coaches and parents push for excellence and encourage participation at an earlier age. However, ways to mitigate these injuries include ensuring the athlete is properly conditioned initially, and then continues to do strengthening and stretching exercise during the season and off season (if applicable).
Some simple tips include:
1. Doing a warm-up routine that includes both stretching and moving (jogging, swimming); and a cool down routine (while there is some disagreement about the effectiveness of cooling down, most experts recommend a cool-down routine).
2. Ensure proper technique when practicing, playing and conditioning.
3. Limit the intensity, frequency and length of practices and games, and ensuring adequate rest in-between.
4. Before the season begins, progress conditioning gradually to ensure the athlete is adequately conditioned before increasing length and intensity of practice (Many experts believe that a 2-day rest period per week is needed, as well as a 10 week off period by doing some other activity or sport).
Third, it is critical that an athlete who has suffered an injury or had surgery is rehabilitated properly, and allowed to rest long enough to allow the body to recover and then to recondition the weakened muscles. In almost all cases, physical therapy is recommended. The length and time depends on the patient, the procedure, or injury and their condition before hand. Many surgeons have physical therapists in their office; however, other therapists such as myself have many years of experience with orthopedic surgical patients, and the choice of provider is ultimately yours.
Recent research raises new concerns about when a patient should return to play or practice. A recent study noted that damage around the surgical area or primary injury location, may take longer to heal than originally thought. To complicate matters, it is not always easy to detect this, and thus the necessity of waiting is not always obvious to the doctor or patient. In my opinion, you should err on the side of caution (wait longer). There should be no pain and the athlete should have optimum muscle strength and flexibility as well as range of motion before practicing or playing again.
We want so much for our young athletes that we may not realize that we are putting them at risk for early onset osteoarthritis, burn-out or debilitating injuries. While athletes often push to get back to play, it is important as parents and coaches to err on the side of caution and follow the health care providers' recommendations. While the athlete may say they are ready to play, as coaches and parents we need to be the voice of reason. We do not want to put our young athletes at risk for medical complications in their 20s and 30s.
If you are in search of treating your pain and want a pain-free life, contact my clinic at 979-776-2225 to set up an appointment. I promise you that physical therapy can change your life for the better.