Preparation Can Help Prevent Sports-Related Injuries for Young Athletes

Friday, September 03, 2004

Participating in school sports can help teens to develop good exercise habits that will serve them well as adults. Sports also offer many other benefits including camaraderie and fun.

However, when your adolescent participates in high school sports, it’s important to accept that injuries will occur as part of the game. Schools, parents, and students can take steps to help prevent sports-related injuries.

Physical Exam Required
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) has established regulations for participating in high school sports in Wisconsin. The WIAA’s Medical Advisory Committee, comprised of eight physicians, produces the “Medical Policies & Procedures” guide for high school sports. Among the policies is the rule of eligibility stating: “A student may not practice for or participate in interscholastic athletics until the school has written evidence on file attesting to parental permission each school year and current physical fitness to participate in sports as determined by a licensed physician or advanced practice nurse no less than every other school year with April 1 the earliest date of examination.”

The guide also includes factors that physicians should consider to disqualify a student from participating in sports, such as physical maturity, the presence of cardiovascular disease, hernia, head injury, certain orthopaedic conditions, asthma or other respiratory conditions, and other health problems.

The best way to deal with sports injuries is to prevent them. Preparation and conditioning during the off-season are very important to ensure that student athletes enter the coming year ready to compete at a safe level. Appropriate preparation should include strength and flexibility training and aerobic conditioning. Most high school sports programs provide an off-season training regimen for students. Players should also wear the appropriate safety gear for the sport.

Commons Injuries
Because their muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons are still growing, young athletes are more likely to be injured. Injuries may occur due to improper training, lack of appropriate safety equipment, or rapid growth during puberty. Some of the more common sports-related injuries are described below.

Sports-related injuries fall into two major categories: acute and chronic or overuse injuries.

  • Acute injuries usually involve a single blow from a force. Examples of acute injuries are fractures, contusions, strains and sprains, and cuts.
  • Overuse injuries happen over a period of time and usually are the result of repetitive training. These include stress fractures (tiny cracks in the bone surface) and tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon). Runners and gymnasts tend to have more overuse injuries.

In high contact or collision sports, “stinger” injuries are common. This is a type of nerve injury that results from trauma to the neck and shoulder. Stingers are commonly seen in athletes participating in sports like football, wrestling, and hockey. They result in a burning pain that travels down the arm, often accompanied by numbness and weakness. Symptoms are usually short-lived, but severe injuries can last for weeks or months, and athletes should not return to playing contact sports until full range of motion is regained. Protective equipment should be worn by athletes who are at high risk for this type of injury.

About 15 percent of high school football players suffer a concussion each season. After a concussion, the student may have problems with memory, concentration, and be confused. If a student with a concussion returns to sports too soon, and suffers another blow to the head, this could cause a displacement of the brain (herniation of the brain), resulting in severe injury.

Women are more prone to ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injuries, which occur in the knee area and often happen during high-contact or pivoting sports. ACL injuries are also common in soccer, basketball, and football, as are ankle and foot injuries.

The WIAA requires that a medical professional be present at all high school collision sport events, and many schools have or are pursuing obtaining a defibrillator in the rare event that a student will require cardiac resuscitation.

High school athletes also may experience injuries that affect their growth plates, the tissue that grows near the end of long bones. Most adolescents still have growth plates, and these areas injure more easily than tendons and ligament. Sports activities that could cause a sprain in an adult could cause a more serious injury in an adolescent, and a fracturing a growth plate can potentially result in abnormal growth.

Returning to Sports Following an Injury
The decision on when and if a player is ready to return to sports can be difficult for parents, coaches and trainers, and even players. Following an injury, some young athletes are eager to return to the game, and may not want their coaches or parents to know they are hurting.

A minor injury such as a dislocated finger, for example, can be painful, while serious injuries such as concussions or neck injuries may not be. A teenager with a concussion may not fully recognize that he or she is having problems.

Parents should encourage their kids to talk to them, their coaches, and doctor openly about their symptoms. Just because an injury isn’t major doesn’t mean the adolescent is ready to rejoin the team. Returning to sports too soon can lead to greater damage and lasting physical problems.

Dr. James Langenkamp is an orthopaedic surgeon on staff at Columbia St. Mary’s and the Orthopaedic Hospital of Wisconsin. For more information, call 414-332-9898.


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