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By Susan J. White
As children and adolescents are facing more and more intense athletic competition and sport specialization, the risk for injuries is also rising.
In recent years, travel leagues, off-season sport-specific training and a concentrated focus on a single-sport year-round have become more common as kids and some parents set their sights on scholarships or professional careers.
This rush to single sport specialization is also leading to more overuse related injuries in the young population, said Zahab Ahsan, MD, orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Edward-Elmhurst Health, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health.
“People of all ages tend to stay healthy and do better by participating in multiple sports or mixing up their activities,” said Dr. Ahsan. And for children who are still growing, this is an even more important strategy for preventing injuries.
Dr. Ahsan encourages parents to have their children involved in multiple activities for as long as possible, resisting the urge to turn them into young prodigies with an all-consuming focus.
“There should be an off-season for kids in sports. We don’t necessarily know exactly how long that should be, but we know that taking a break is important for athletes of all ages. Overuse is a true phenomenon and a bigger threat for those who are still growing,” said Dr. Ahsan.
As a general rule, girls tend to reach skeletal maturity at 14 to 15-years-old and boys at 16 to 17-years old, he added. Among the most common overuse injuries Dr. Ahsan sees are shoulder or back problems from overhead throwing in baseball or softball.
“Sports should not be painful,” he said. If a young athlete says their shoulder hurts, it’s a sign to rest and potentially see a physician. “There is an acceptable level of soreness, but not pain.”
Ignoring initial complaints of pain and continuing to play through injuries can often result in more serious problems.
Strength training and cross training with other activities are also crucial strategies to help athletes of all ages stave off injuries. Similarly, stretching and mobility work are not only healthy, but help support sport-specific goals.
For younger athletes or those new to strength or weight training Dr. Ahsan recommends working with a trainer or coach to first learn proper technique and form.
“Cross training encourages longevity whether you are an adult runner or a young baseball player,” added Dr. Ahsan.
Getting enough quality sleep is crucial to helping the body recover from strenuous exercise. Practicing good sleep hygiene, like avoiding caffeinated beverages at night and turning phones off can make a big difference for teens and adults, said Dr. Ahsan.
Similarly healthy diets play a role in keeping athletes in the game. Parents should make sure their kids are getting calories come from nutritious foods rather than high-glucose drinks.
A passionate advocate for athletes of all ages. Dr. Ahsan advises patients and parents of younger athletes to keep sports fun and follow reasonable guidelines to help them stay active for the long haul.
The team of experts at NorthShore Orthopaedic & Spine Institute offers world-class options close by. We use innovative, minimally invasive techniques for joint replacement, complex spine surgeries, sports medicine and more, so you can get back to the activities you enjoy sooner. Learn more.
Need immediate care for an injury? The experts at our Orthopaedic & Spine Immediate Care Centers provide care for sports injuries, as well as sprains, muscle strains and fractures. Learn more.