Playing it Safe: Avoid Sports Injuries
As another sports season gears up, there’s a noticeable rise in strains, sprains, pulled muscles and overuse injuries. All are hazards of competitive sports, but both adults and children can prevent many of these incidents by going back to basics: stretching, strengthening and conditioning.
Orthopedic surgeon Scott Slivka MD offers sound advice, drawn from his expertise as a sports medicine expert, his experience as a former college athlete and oversight of his son and daughter as their pursue soccer, baseball, basketball and snow sports.
Principles to Prevent Injuries
#1: Don’t Underestimate the Value of Flexibility
“Flexibility should be achieved over time and not just right before a game,” Dr. Slivka recommends. He suggests stretching three to four days a week in a relaxed, unhurried manner.”
Flexibility training is best started at least four weeks before a sport begins. Martial arts and yoga are great ways to develop flexibility, he says. If you can’t get to a class, there are plenty of DVDs and smartphone apps to help. “Before an event or activity, do a light aerobic warm-up and then stretch for 10 minutes.” Flexibility helps prevent strained groins, hamstrings and other leg injuries.
#2: Build Muscle Strength
“Everyone can agree that a stronger athlete generally has an advantage,” Dr. Slivka says. “Even children who haven’t reached puberty can safely perform light-resistance, high-repetition programs."
A schedule of regular conditioning activity is the best formula for success,” he continues. “Any activity helps, however, such as biking, swimming or neighborhood games.”
#3: Start Conditioning Long Before the Big Event
Most sports involve running, and Dr. Slivka says the earlier athletes start conditioning, the better. Whether it’s jogging, swimming, gymnastics, martial arts, yoga or playing in the neighborhood, being active helps prevent injuries. Joints and muscles accustomed to aerobic exercise will fare much better during rigorous sports training.
Common Athlete Ailments
Athletic injuries fall into two main groups: overuse injuries and traumatic injuries (sprains, strains and fractures).
“Many overuse injuries in children are caused by over-stressing immature portions of the skeleton, particularly growth plates,” Dr. Slivka says.
Sever’s disease occurs when the growth plate in the lower back of the heel, where the Achilles tendon attaches, becomes painful and inflamed with repetitive stress on the Achilles tendon. Symptoms of pain, stiffness and swelling are usually worse during or after activity and get better with rest. Ice plus stretching and strengthening exercises contribute to healing.
Osgood-Schlatter disease is an overuse syndrome caused by inflammation of the tendon below the kneecap where it attaches to the shin bone. Osgood-Schlatter usually occurs during growth spurts. Rest is the key to pain relief, plus applying moist heat before an activity and icing the knee afterward.
The hard, baked ground during August, for example, increases pounding on the heels and knees, and poorly cushioned shoes contribute to these problems. “Shoes that have a cushion can be a big benefit for kids age 10 and up,” Dr. Slivka says.
Shin splints, a dull, aching pain in the front of the leg, is common among teen athletes and often is best treated with rest and ice. Teens also experience pain in front of the knee called chondromalacia, indicating damage to the cartilage under the kneecap. Rest, ice and physical therapy will help.
Although overuse conditions are painful and might require athletes to take some time off to recover, they rarely produce long-term problems. A more serious overuse injury, osteochondritis dissecans, may have significant long-term implications if not identified early. Most commonly occurring in the knee or throwing elbow, this condition is caused by a deep bruise of the bone that sometimes evolves into a fragment of bone and cartilage coming loose. Surgical repair may be needed if loose fragments get caught between moving parts of a joint or causes persistent pain.
Traumatic Injuries (Sprains, Strains and Fractures)
“If your child is experiencing pain at night or pain beyond the event into the next day, and over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol and Advil are not helping, consider seeing a physician. Young athletes have open growth plates subject to injury and persistent joint pain could be the sign of a more serious ailment (such as osteochondritis dissecans),” he says.