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Sports injuries: Trends sidelining young athletes

Young athletes often dream of being superstars. They can close their eyes and see the ball sail over the Green Monster or make the end zone catch in front of a packed Gillette Stadium. While practice can help a talented boy or girl turn into a champion, too much of it too soon may not be a good thing for a growing body.

Too much of a good thing?

Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at Tufts Medical Center, Matthew Salzler, MD, believes high-impact sports participation should be limited in children. “I advise parents to mix it up when their children are younger. Let them get a taste of a range of sports,” said Dr. Salzler. “If they love one, that’s great, but continue to counsel them to do a variety of activities.”

Two young athletes playing soccerACL tears, hip problems and stress fractures are some of the problems that can arise when a young body is constantly moving the same way. Developing muscles can become imbalanced which can make getting to a high level of play difficult. In 2014, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) released a position statement discouraging early sport specialization and intensive training among young athletes due to growing research evidence that associated these activities with overuse injuries and burnout.

“The sad part is that more and more young people are choosing not to be active,” he said. “With child obesity numbers increasing, it’s more important than ever for parents to get their kids excited about regular physical activity and make sure they continue to exercise as they grow.”

In the end, though, any activity is better than none. 

High-impact sports

As Chief of Orthopaedics and a prominent hand surgeon, Dr. Charles Cassidy sees plenty of sports-related hand injuries. But even he was surprised when his son, a lacrosse goalie, suffered his third broken hand bone. 

“The way the stick is held leaves the fingers, hand and wrist exposed to the ball,” said Dr. Cassidy. “And that ball comes in fast and can do quite a bit of damage.” 

Lacrosse injuries are becoming more common due to its dramatic increase in popularity over the past decade. Today, more than 800,000 young people play lacrosse; kids find it appealing due to its more physical nature than other spring team sports.    

Dr. Salzler believes the high-speed nature of these sports is largely to blame. “Lacrosse is similar to soccer in that the body pivots a lot from one direction to another and that can cause ankle sprains and knee injuries, like ACL and meniscus tears,” said Dr. Salzler. “But lacrosse also has short, high-speed bursts of play, similar to hockey. That higher speed can lead to more injuries.”

Concussions are also associated with lacrosse, the result of body-to-body contact or the athlete hitting the ground. Occasionally, Dr. Salzler says an inadvertent stick or ball to the head or face can result in a concussion.

“Lacrosse is an excellent sport. But like any competition that is fast and physical, players and coaches need to be cautious of any head injury, evaluate the player and sit him or her out, if there is any question,” advised Dr. Salzler.

CrossFit concerns

While many people enjoy the results and the camaraderie associated with a CrossFit workout, others have pointed to the risks. The high-intensity, interval training routines involve a combination of weight-lifting, endurance training, running and jumping - all done in rapid sequence.

“This is not an exercise for those just starting on their road to fitness,” said Dr. Salzler. “We see tendinitis, rotator cuff and bicep injuries – often due to improper technique.”  

The appeal of the activity has begun to catch on with teens. Gyms are pulling together modified versions of high-intensity interval training for youth. National competitions like the CrossFit Games now allow kids as young as 14 to participate. However, it’s particularly important for younger participants to have professional assistance when doing high-intensity interval training to make sure they are not doing exercises that could cause harm. 

“Kids should not be doing power lifting until their bones reach maturity,” said Dr. Salzler, adding the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no heavy weightlifting until late teens. The Academy says other types of strength training are okay starting at age eight.