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Overuse injuries soaring among children in sports

In the weeks after B.C.’s provincial cross-country championships in November, almost one in five of the children and teens who…

By Emilie Rauschuetz , in City Health Sport , on November 25, 2015

Knees, ankles, elbows and shoulders are most commonly affected by overuse injuries.
Knees, ankles, elbows and shoulders are most commonly affected by overuse injuries.

In the weeks after B.C.’s provincial cross-country championships in November, almost one in five of the children and teens who had participated appeared at clinics and doctors’ offices with overuse injuries.

It turns out, that’s not unusual.

This generation’s children are focusing on one sport too early and overwork themselves too often, according to specialist Dr. Jack Taunton at the UBC Allard McGavin Sports Medicine Centre.

“There are two problems with children in sports today. They either try to do two or three sports at a very high level or specialize on one sport way too early. That causes an incredible strain on their joints and muscles.”

Today in Canada, between 640,000 and 840,000 children annually get diagnosed with overuse injuries related to sports. That means 55 to 70 per cent of all sports injuries in children are overuse injuries.

That’s a sharp contrast with the situation 10 years ago, when overuse injuries accounted for only 25 per cent of all sports injuries in children.

Runner’s knee is the most diagnosed condition in sports medicine clinics. © Emilie Rauschuetz
Runner’s knee is the most diagnosed condition in sports medicine clinics.

The most commonly affected body parts are the knee and ankle in sports like soccer and cross-country, as well as the shoulder, elbow or wrist in sports such as baseball, basketball and tennis.

But how do overuse injuries even happen? Dr. David Geier, head of the outreach committee at the STOP Sports Injuries Campaign, explains that there are a few main reasons we are seeing so many children suffer from these types of injuries today.

The first and “by far, far, far the most worrying is the trend of having kids specialise on one sport at a very young age,” according to Geier. “Practicing the same motor skills over and over again for many hours every day leads to the vast majority of overuse injuries.”

Other common mistakes among parents and coaches are pushing the young athletes too far in a short period of time and not allowing enough rest.

While young athletes are encouraged to play different sports until they hit puberty to avoid repetitive-use injuries, there should also be some weeks or even months of the year during which children get a break from all intense physical activity, said Grier.

Overuse injuries aren’t good for anyone. But Taunton said they’re particularly bad for children. Overuse injuries lead to more injuries later and, when the overuse starts early, that means more problems for more years. As well, overuse injuries can impair children’s growth.

Furthermore, Paul Dwyer, manager of sports safety and event services at SportMedBC, claimed that overuse injuries “might have a detrimental effect in terms of their involvement in sport for life.”

He cautioned parents should be aware of mental consequences such as burn-out. “We see some people actually drop off the sports spectrum, and of course the things that go with that are increased risk for diseases like obesity.”

Studies show that fear of re-injury and loss of confidence after being away from the sport for a certain amount of time are also complicating factors in children. University athletes could lose a year of school and maybe scholarship funding.

Dr. Jack Taunton at the UBC Allard McGavin Sports Medicine Centre showing a model of an ankle, one of the most common joints susceptible to overuse injuries. ©Emilie Rauschuetz
Dr. Jack Taunton at the UBC Allard McGavin Sports Medicine Centre showing a model of an ankle, one of the most common joints susceptible to overuse injuries.

There are various simple measures parents can take to protect their children from overuse injuries in general. Physicians suggest no more than a 10 per cent increase of intensity in practice per week, while respecting off-days and ensuring enough sleep. At the same time it is vital that young athletes “don’t get pushed to practice or play through pain,“ Geier adds.

Taunton underlined the importance of strengthening muscles in order to avoid injuries of all kinds. “The athletes really need to spend much more time stretching and they need strength to support and stabilize their movements.”

Multiple parents at a recent set of tournaments, who did not want to be mentioned by name, voiced their concerns as well. But they said that when children are involved with more than one sport, parents find it hard to balance physical activity with the proper amount of rest.

As the fall season is coming to an end and winter sports start, experts say it might be a good time to evaluate whether children are in danger of developing overuse injuries. Especially in difficult weather conditions, the strain on joints and muscles in children increases massively.