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For many families this month marks not only the beginning of the school year for academics, but also for returning to school sports. The numbers of children participating in competitive sports has risen dramatically in recent years in children of all ages. And while athletics can help kids learn about sportsmanship, teamwork, and discipline – there are risks for injuries that must be managed so it remains a positive experience.

Children are more susceptible to sports injuries for a variety of reasons. Children younger than 8 or 9 have slower reaction times and less developed coordination. Additionally – since kids grow and mature at different rates – bigger kids end up in the same age groups as some of their smaller contemporaries, which may also lead to increased risk of injury. And for adolescents, the level of competition may be more than their still developing bones and joints can handle. Many teenagers are also prone to taking more risks – including during athletic competition, leading to more chances for injury.

It is important for parents, coaches and trainers, and the athletes themselves to understand the common causes and types of injuries. This will help reduce the risks and severity and ensure a safe and positive experience.

Proper Equipment: One of the most important factors that lead to higher risks of injury is lack of proper safety gear and protective equipment. Helmets need to be worn for sports like Baseball, football, lacrosse, hockey, and biking or skating. Families and coaches should also consider various other safety measures such as protective eyewear with shatterproof goggles, mouth guards, athletic supporters, shoulder pads and shin guards. The risk varies depending on the sport and level of competition. Parents and trainers must ensure that the appropriate safety gear is available – but also that it fits properly and is actually worn correctly by the children.

Adult Supervision: All athletics -from practices or training sessions to the competition itself must have qualified adult oversight. Members of the staff or coaches should have training in first aid and CPR. They should be understand the importance of proper safety equipment and technique. The playing field should be free from irregularities and other apparatuses and equipment should be checked for proper maintenance. Adults should ensure that the participants are appropriately matched for the sport they are playing and the size of other participants. The staff must require adequate rest and hydration before and during practice and competition. The coaches should also be on the look out for signs of injury and must hold kids out of participation until evaluated by medical staff.

Proper Preparation:   Children must understand the rules and proper techniques before participating in active competition so that they don’t injure themselves or other participants. There must be adequate rest time between practices or games, and knowledgeable adults should conduct training and warm up sessions.

The types of sports injuries in children are typically either acute or related to chronic overuse and reinjury. Acute injuries happen suddenly and are typically caused by trauma. These can range from mild sprains and strains to minor bruises or superficial cuts and scrapes. As children get older the level or force their bodies generate increases resulting in more significant injuries.

Overuse injuries happen when repetitive actions put chronic stress on bones, joints, and muscles. This type of trauma is especially problematic in young athletes where there is potential for long term effects on bone growth. This category of injury can be caused or worsened by factors such as excessive activity, playing the same sport year round without varying position, inadequate warm up or improper technique, growth spurts, or unsuitable equipment.

Examples of this are common issues that many are familiar with such as:

Shin splints – running on hard surfaces and over training leads to pain and discomfort on the front parts of the lower legs

Little League Elbow – Pain and tenderness that is triggered by repetitive throwing. It can lead to decrease ability to flex and extend the arm at the elbow and lower endurance. Similar issues can develop in the shoulders of swimmers.

Knee pain – many athletes complain of pain at the front of their knees just underneath the kneecap. This may indicate a condition called Osgood-Schlatter disease, in which there is inflammation of part of the tibia bone called the tibial tuberosity.

Back Pain – repetitive motions of the lower back muscles or even trauma can lead to chronic back pain, sometimes called spondylosis.

Treating sports injuries

In all circumstances , the approach should be to “play it safe”. The athlete should be removed from the practice or competition immediately until appropriate first aid and medical assessment can be completed. If the injury affects basic function, such as causing a limp or the child cannot fully bend a joint – the evaluation should be done by a physician. And of course for more severe injuries the athlete should be taken to the nearest Emergency department. For aches and pains that develop over time – more typical of overuse injuries – the child should be examined by their pediatrician who can correctly diagnose the condition and develop a treatment plan, which usually involves rest and anti inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen.

While physical fitness and athletics are helping more children maintain a healthy lifestyle – it is incumbent on families to monitor all aspects of sports participation to ensure that it remains a safe   and positive experience.