Participation in sports is a popular activity for teenagers, many of whom begin during childhood and continue throughout high school. Organized sports for teens have become increasingly popular in recent years, with many students vying for athletic scholarships, so there has been a corresponding rise in overuse injuries as they are pushed to train harder, and earlier in life.
What exactly is an overuse injury? Unlike an injury caused by falling or blunt force, these injuries occur when repetitive motions cause damage to bone, ligament, muscle, or tendon. Regular and repeated stress comes with training and the damage is generally minor at the beginning, but when it isn’t allowed to heal properly, it develops into an injury. The first sign is pain that lingers after physical activity; because this is generally normal, it may not serve as a warning. In the second stage, the athlete experiences pain during activity, although it doesn’t affect their performance, followed in the next stage by pain during activity that does affect their ability to play. Finally, the athlete consistently feels pain even while at rest.
One reason that teen athletes are at a greater risk for overuse injuries is because they’re still growing: when bones and muscles aren’t fully developed, they’re prone to wear and tear. Another reason is that they may not know what to look out for – they’re often accustomed to discomfort such as soreness or bruising, so they may attribute the pain of overuse to typical athletic pain. Parents and coaches should look for signs that the teens’ normal performance is being compromised: changes in the way an athlete plays (limping, changing styles) or noticeable slowing are signs of an injury.
The increased focus on one sport from an early age can contribute to overuse injuries: the same muscles are consistently overworked, while others are underused or neglected. Many medical professionals recommend that teens play different sports during different seasons, which not only allows certain muscles and bones to rest, but also provides overall strengthening through cross-training. Teens should also be encouraged to rest when they need it, and allow themselves to recover before re-entering the game.