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The Rise in Youth Sports Injuries

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In my article, Specializing in Youth Sports, Good or Bad, I touched on the current increase in injuries to young competitors playing sports. Just the fact that the sheer number of young athletes participating has gone up over the last several decades, would automatically cause an upswing in the number of young sports enthusiasts having to seek medical attention. There is just an inherent physical risk in competitive sports that cannot be denied.

However, it does appear (even with the greater numbers participating) that the number of young athletes being injured, and the severity of those injuries, is quite large. If my memory serves me correct, I believe there were about 6 out of the 18 soccer players (or 1/3rd of the team) on my oldest daughter’s club soccer team (sophomores) that had torn their ACL. And 4 of those 6 eventually went on to tear the ACL of the opposite knee as well. These are some pretty serious injuries requiring major reconstructive surgery, something I never even heard of when I was competing in high school. I mean you did hear of the occasional male athlete blowing their knee in football, but that just did not seem to me to be as common as it is today. Even walking the halls in the high school where I teach I see more athletes on crutches, in casts, boots, and/or ace wraps (both male and female) than I can ever remember from my day. Sure you did see or hear about it at the professional levels of some sports, but that was expected.

The question then becomes, “Why?” I am sure there is more than one answer to this question. First (as I mentioned in the first paragraph), the large increase in numbers participating today compared to years past would suggest an increase in the number of injuries sustained. It is just a matter of percentages; more people equals more injuries.

Secondly, the continuous repetition of the same muscle groups doing the same thing all the time, especially when athletes specialize in one sport, can and does cause imbalances in muscle groups (around joints) if consideration is not given to proper training for this possibility. Now I do not want to give anybody the idea that specializing in one sport is a “bad” thing (my feelings on both sides of this issue are detailed in my 3 part article, Specializing in Youth Sports, Good or Bad), just that it is a factor needing to be considered when discussing the increase of youth sport injuries.

There is also research that demonstrates the increased risk to females, most notably at the knee, over males due to anatomical, neuromuscular, and biological differences. Years ago, before women engaged in the intense type training that you see today, how would anyone have known about this risk? Now both men and women are training, playing, and performing at maximal levels.

Another factor is the increased level of intense type training, in addition to the amount of time this type of training takes, that young athletes are putting in, in order to improve their abilities, has to be a consideration. Athletes are bigger, stronger, quicker, and faster (even the average athlete) than they ever were. This all amounts to more stress on body parts and thus, more risk of injury. This, in addition to the body not getting enough rest and/or time to recuperate, and not spending enough time keeping muscles flexible enough to move through wide ranges of motion, certainly seems to lend itself to increased risk of injury.

There are probably several other possibilities that I have not covered which may also be contributing factors in this issue. However, my purpose in this article is not to just list them all, but rather to give some food for thought as to why youth sport injuries are increasing, point you in the direction of some good articles that help support this (something I will do at the end), and give some alternative possibilities that may help in decreasing this risk.

Now the body is an amazing piece of machinery; able to heal, get stronger, and better if trained, fed, and treated properly (sleep, rest, etc.). That is why I strongly encourage any athlete to spend a good deal of time on proprioceptive (unconscious joint & limb awareness) training and preventive-type conditioning. The purpose of these types of exercises is to balance strength levels on all sides of a joint and help the body develop a more keen sense of internal subconscious awareness regarding limb and joint movement. This, coupled with functional sports specific type training, flexibility work, proper rest and diet, can and does help to decrease the risk of sustaining athletic injuries. At least that is what any level of logic would tell us. So, with some effort, thought, and research on your part, or the coach’s/trainer’s part, an athlete can increase strength and flexibility, and prevent injury all at the same time. It is worth the effort.

I will attempt to expand on the issue of injury prevention, as described above, and supply references to articles that will help in giving more specific information on decreasing the risk of injury to young athletes in my next article. In this way the athlete will be able to take more control over what happens to them, always a good thing, rather than giving up this control to chance.

I have identified several articles that detail what their authors believe to be underlying causes behind this increase of youth sport injuries. They not only give solid reasoning behind the “why” this is occurring, but also indicate that the severity of injuries has gone up, supporting much of what I have discussed in this article. These articles include:

The growing pains of childhood sports injuries by staff writer Erin Allday of the San Francisco Chronicle,

More Kids Are Suffering Sports Injuries by Serena Gordon of the HealthDay Reporter, U.S. Department of Health & Human Resources,

Minimizing the Risks of Organized Youth Sports from the Health Link at the Medical College of Wisconsin,

ACL Injuries In Female Athletes by Dr. Steven Horwitz from experts on the MomsTeam website,

Increase in adult-type injuries among children and adolescents by Dr. Dieter Lindskog pediatric orthopedist at Yale-New Haven Hospital and assistant professor of orthopedics at the Yale University School of Medicine,

All of these articles, in some manner, support the idea of a current trend in increased youth sports injuries, and that it really is a concern needing to be addressed. Some even suggest possible avenues for prevention. I recommend their reading and hope they shed more light on a very important topic involving youth and their sports participation.

Kirk Mango
Becoming a True Champion