How to Help Your Child Avoid Overuse Injuries in Youth Sports
By Eric Requa, DO, Sports Medicine Primary Care Physician
Virtua Sports Medicine
Youth sports are a great way for kids to improve their physical fitness, learn focus and concentration and develop character. But as children’s athletic activities become increasingly intense and competitive, it’s important for parents, doctors and coaches to work as a team and set appropriate limits to help young athletes avoid overuse injuries.
What's an overuse injury?
An overuse injury occurs in the muscles, soft tissues or joints and is caused by repetitive stress or trauma. Common overuse injuries include:
- Bursitis, inflammation of fluid-filled sacs between the joints
- Little League shoulder or elbow
- Osgood-Schlatter disease, a bony growth on the shin
- Shin splints
- Stress fractures
- Tennis elbow
Who’s at risk for overuse injuries?
The growing bodies of young athletes can be especially prone to overuse injuries. Children who participate in intense or highly competitive athletic programs, specialize in one sport, play on multiple teams or participate in year-round athletic activities with little or no time off are at a higher risk of developing overuse injuries. Although certain overuse injuries are associated with specific sports, no sport is completely safe.
- Baseball pitchers are especially prone to “throwing” injuries such as Little League shoulder and elbow.
- Children who participate in running sports such as track, soccer or lacrosse are at an increased risk of shin splints, stress fractures and Osgood-Schlatter disease.
- Children who participate in gymnastics are at a greater risk of developing stress fractures or injuries to the soft tissues in their wrists, hands and feet.
What can parents do to prevent overuse injuries?
Because children are now able to participate in year-round clinics, camps and travel teams for just about every sport, the most important thing parents can do to prevent overuse injuries is to set age- and sport-appropriate limits on athletic activities.
During the season, children should have at least 1 “off” day per week to allow their bodies to recover. Off days provide the perfect opportunity for children to engage in balanced, non-sports-related physical activity through unstructured free play, such as tag or climbing on a jungle gym.
Parents should make sure that children have at least 2 to 3 consecutive months off from their main sport each year. Trying another sport during the off-season is a great way for your child to stay in shape, develop new skills, use different muscles and avoid overuse injuries caused by overspecialization in one sport. In fact, studies have shown that single-sport athletes break down faster than multisport athletes—and many of today’s professional athletes played multiple sports as children.
It's also important for parents to pay attention to how children are behaving and feeling throughout the season. If your child loses interest for an athletic activity that he or she once enjoyed, experiences extreme fatigue, is unable to recover from workouts or shows signs of depression, he or she may need to take a break.
What can coaches do to prevent overuse injuries?
Coaches can raise awareness of overuse injuries by providing information on the signs and symptoms to parents and athletes. Coaches also should encourage athletes to speak up if they’re experiencing symptoms of an overuse injury. By working together with the athlete’s parents, coaches can help make sure the athlete gets the treatment and rest that he or she needs.
Some youth sports organizations have established age-specific guidelines designed to prevent overuse injuries. For example, USA Baseball and Major League Baseball have established guidelines stating that children ages 11 to 12 should throw no more than 85 pitches per game and pitch no more than two games per week. Coaches should follow all age- and-sport-specific safety guidelines.
However, following sport-specific guidelines can become complicated when a child plays on multiple teams (school and travel teams, for example). Parents can help coaches keep multi-team athletes safe by making sure that their child’s overall activity stays within the recommended guidelines.
Coaches also should be sure to train their athletes to use proper technique and develop proper mobility, flexibility and muscle tone in the appropriate areas of the body. A sports medicine specialist or specialized coach can help ensure that athletes are using proper form. Although proper body mechanics and strength can reduce the risk of injury, it will not prevent overuse injuries caused by too much repetitive movement.
Participation in youth sports has many benefits, but too much of a good thing can have serious consequences.
If your child needs treatment for sports injury, call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to schedule a visit with a Virtua sports medicine specialist.
Updated June 4, 2018