Sports Injuries In Young Athletes

Athletic participation has increased significantly in grade schools, high schools and community programs throughout the U.S. More children and young adults enjoy participating in sports than ever before. Adolescent athlete have very specific needs because their bodies continue to growing throughout their playing career. They will typically require different conditioning, coaching, and even medical care than more mature or adult athletes.

Statistics demonstrate the increased popularity of sports among young adults. 62% of boys and 38% of girls between the ages 8 and 17 compete in organized sports programs sometime throughout the year. And 80% of junior high schools and middle schools have competitive interscholastic sports programs. The high school level offers even more available programs; there are 35 male and 30 female competitive sports with approximately 8.9M high school students participating annually. Beyond organized sports programs, millions more compete and participate in physical education classes, church and community intramural programs and other recreational athletic activities.

Most sports injuries to adolescent athletes, particularly elbow and knee injuries, are caused by excessive, repetitive stress on immature muscle-bone units. Such repetitive overuse can cause fractures, muscle tears and even bone deformity. The early return to competition by professional athletes following an injury creates a false impression that athletes can heal faster than the average person or non-professional athlete. However, peer pressure and economic and social forces exerted on school coaches to win lead to decisions that are not always in the best interest of adolescent athletes’ health, growth and development.

The growing adolescent athlete is not a smaller version of the adult. There are marked differences in strength, stamina and coordination between a child or youth and an adult. In young athletes; bone, tendon and muscle units, which are the growth areas within bones and ligaments experience uneven growth patterns, leaving them highly susceptible to injury.

Increases in body size may also be due to fat not muscle, causing marked differences in strength. Too often unfair competition occurs between 120 pound boys made up of baby fat versus 180 pound young men made up of muscle.

Grade school students are less likely to suffer from severe injury because they are smaller and slower than their older counterparts. When these athletes collide or fall the forces on their musculoskeletal system is usually not substantial enough to cause injury. Conversely, high school athletes are much bigger, stronger, faster and capable of delivering tremendous forces in contact sports.

Coaches, parents, and players should provide proper protection and understanding for adolescent athletes by way of stretch and conditioning, prompt injury response and treatment and rehabilitation therapy. Conditioning programs strive to make young athletes physically fit by improving muscle strength, endurance, flexibility, and cardiorespiratory fitness. Thankfully, serious sports-related injuries are rare in young adults. Little sports time is also lost from most sports injuries due to minor trauma involving soft tissues. Further, sports injuries actually occur more frequently in physical education classes, but with even minimal safety precautions and proper supervision will prevent most injuries and developing conditions.

Approximately 95% of sports injuries are considered minor trauma involving soft tissues, which include; muscle pulls, sprains, strains, bruises, cuts and abrasions. Almost 33% of sports injuries are classified as sprains. A mild sprain is swelling and tenderness of a ligament, but a more advanced injury consists of a partial or complete tear of the ligament. A ligament is a thick, tough band of fibrous tissue connecting the ends of bones and stabilizing joints. Symptoms include instability, tenderness, swelling and an inability to bear weight because of pain. Loss of motion, the sound or feeling of a pop or snap when the injury occurred and inflammation are all symptoms of a sprain; however, not all sprains produce pain. Ankle sprains are the most common injury with approximately 60% of all basketball related injuries falling into this category alone.

A strain is a partial or complete tear of a muscle or tendon. Muscle tissue is made up of cells that contract and make the body move. A tendon consists of tough connective tissue that attaches muscles to bones. The most common sports injury are contusions, or bruises, that rarely cause a student athlete to be sidelined. Bruises result when a blunt injury causes underlying bleeding in a muscle or other soft tissue.

Although spinal cord injuries in sports are rare, about 8% of all spinal injuries occur during sports, primarily from football, surfing and diving. They can range from a sprain to paralysis in the arms and legs to death. Participants in contact sports can minimize the risk of minor neck spinal injuries, like sprains and pinched nerves, by doing exercises to strengthen their neck muscles.

A sudden, violent collision with another player, an accident with sports equipment, or a severe fall can cause skeletal injuries in the growing athlete, including fractures.

Fractures constitute only about 5% of all sports injuries. Most of these breaks occur in the extremities, the arm and legs, rarely are the spine and skull fractured. 

More common, however, are stress fractures and ligament-bone disruptions that occur because of continuing overuse of a joint. The main symptom of a stress fracture is pain. Unfortunately, an x-ray will not pick-up stress fractures so typically the student athlete is permitted to return to activity, but pain often returns and or continues. The most frequent places stress fractures occur are in the tibia, the fibula and the foot.

Little league elbow is another condition that develops as a result of a pitcher’s repetitive throwing, too much pressure is placed on the elbow bone’s growth centers. This painful condition results from overuse of the muscles and tendons or from an injury to the cartilage surfaces in the elbow. Prompt treatment for soft tissue injuries usually consists of rest, ice, wrapping or bracing with elastic bandages which constitutes compression and elevating the injured arm, hand, leg or foot. Treatment limits discomfort and reduces healing time.

Female involvement in sports has increased significantly at the high school level, by 1000% over the last 16 years. Early studies initially indicated that female athletes should train at lower levels of intensity than their male counterparts, but today’s female athlete trains and compete at levels that rival the best male athletes in the world. Although there are differences in performance that are sex-related, athletic injuries are related more to the player’s sport than sex. Overall, sports activity by young people is safe with low risks and high benefits. Exposure to competitive and noncompetitive sports encourages the development of fitness, motor skills, social skills and life-long appreciation for sports.