Any casual sports fan knows that it’s football season. Just look at any high school on a Friday night or in the living rooms of Americans everywhere on Sundays. If you ask a child athlete when football season is though, their response may not be fall—it may be “all year.”
Year-round playing of a single sport is just one of the trends in youth athletics which have helped lead to an increase in youth sports injuries, according to Dr. Pietro Tonino. Dr. Tonino is Chief of Sports Medicine at the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago, and a leading expert on youth sports injuries.
Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Pietro Tonino.
Dr. Tonino says that every level of competition in sporting has changed. Youth sports have elevated the competition to a high school level, high school to collegiate, and collegiate to professional. He believes this change has happened because of a couple reasons. The first is increased media attention on sports below the professional level.
“Now you can see the Little League World Series on TV, on ESPN, where you’ve never seen them before,” he says.
Another reason for the change is for academics. “A lot of these kids can use their athletic skills to secure scholarships for school, find good schools and secure positions and colleges,” Dr. Tonino says.
This new attitude towards youth sports has resulted in not only increased competition and year-round playing for some children, but earlier specialization in a specific sport as well. While this may seem ideal in order to create the next sports superstar, the combination of these three aspects of youth athletics may actually cause a setback in the form of an injury for a young athlete.
Overuse injuries are one of the most common injuries for young athletes. These usually come in the form of pain around one of the joints that is used often for a given sport. For example, basketball players may experience pain in their knees, while a baseball player may experience pain in their shoulder.
The problem can become much more severe though if the growth plates become involved. Repeated actions, such as pitching a baseball can cause the athlete to “get a distraction, or a pulling apart of the growth plate,” says Dr. Tonino.
The good news about overuse injuries is that they often heal on their own with rest. This means that the athlete has to stop doing the activity that caused the injury in the first place, which can often put the athlete behind in his or her training. It’s this aspect of youth sports injuries that Dr. Tonino believes is quite ironic.
“You have them doing all these things to keep them ahead, and all of a sudden by doing these things, you actually set them back maybe a month or two months or three months from things you want them to do,” he says.
Dr. Tonino doesn’t suggest complete rest though, but instead recommends activities that do not disturb the point of injury. For example, somebody experiencing a knee injury from basketball can swim during their time off from basketball. “To have a kid not do anything at all and not participate in any sports and not do any activities would be very hard to tolerate at that age,” he says.
With attention being put on the NFL lately about the long term effects of concussions, which are the most common form of traumatic brain injuries, Dr. Tonino believes it’s necessary to have the conversation at the high school level. Concussions are dangerous simply because they are not completely understood yet by medical professionals.
“We don’t know how to assess when somebody’s recovered fully from the injury. As far as looking at them, it’s not like a fracture where we can see a broken bone healing and say, ‘ok, it’s healed.’ With a concussion, it’s very difficult to know that they’re 100 percent okay after that injury,” he says.
Because of this, Dr. Tonino always tells parents of children who play contact sports that they should be prepared to assume some of the risk of an injury that can occur from that.
And most importantly, for any kind of injury, if a young athlete does start complaining of pain caused by a sport, Dr. Tonino says to “help them and don’t tell them to just walk it off.