Many children are enrolled in competitive sports programs from a young age, and some continue to play throughout high school, college, and beyond. Although competitive sports are a great way to get kids exercising, socializing with others, and learning important skills like teamwork and commitment, they are not without risk: competitive sports injuries are the second-leading cause of emergency room trips, as well as the second most common injury in school.
Physical activity is essential to good health and development for kids, and youth can of course be an asset in healing quickly. But the repetition and intensity of training takes its toll on their muscles, joints, bones, and other tissue just as it does in adults. In fact, healthcare workers are noticing that many injuries common to adult professional athletes are becoming more and more frequent at a younger age. One reason for this is that kids are starting younger – some begin competing as young as seven. Another reason may be that training has become more intense; with more frequent, longer, or intense practices, there’s greater chance of overuse injuries.
You may have heard the phrase “play through the pain”, meant to encourage athletes to push through discomfort to focus on the game. Doctors are less fond of this idea; pain is usually a sign that something is wrong, so when a persistent pain goes unexamined and untreated, it can actually have more serious consequences down the line. For example, stress fractures can easily lead to an all-out broken bone if not properly attended. Not only should kids not be encouraged to play injured, parents and coaches should watch for signs of pain they may not have mentioned: limping, a noticeable slowing down, or changes to the child’s usual style can all be indications of injury. Pain should also be handled accordingly – applying ice, giving over the counter pain medication, and resting properly are, in many cases, sufficient to treat a minor injury before it gets worse.
Finally, focusing entirely on one sport can lead to overuse injuries or other pain. Many doctors recommend getting a variety of exercise, or playing different sports in different seasons, rather than one all year round. This strengthens different parts of the body and can help prevent repetitive motion pain.