Healthbeat Report: Overuse Injuries

April 28, 2011 8:32:58 PM PDT
Many young athletes are playing year round to improve their skills. But at what price?

Their bodies are still growing so cartilage can be soft. Bones may be weak. Specialists say more children are getting adult type injuries that not only keep them on the sidelines but could cause lasting problems.

For 30 years, Terry Sullivan was a teacher and the varsity baseball coach at Lyons Township High School. Now he's a Major League scouting consultant for the Boston Red Sox. He travels across Illinois sizing up young talent and has a message for parents.

"I still see too many kids who have had to quit the sport or have been removed for a period of time because of serious injury...elbow surgery. Tendinitis is so common," said Sullivan.

Overuse injuries can occur from repeating the same motion over and over again. Pitching in baseball is a good example. But many other sport can also result in overuse injuries.

Orthopedic surgeons are seeing two trends: a rise in the number of youth sports injuries and younger athletes with overuse injuries. They suspect playing one sport all the time especially before puberty may be too much for a young, developing body.

"Take 3-4 months off that sport and play another sport. Cross train. Do something different that would probably alleviate 50 percent of the things we are seeing," said Dr. Greg Nicholson, orthopedic surgeon, Midwest Orthopaedics.

Easier said than done. Youth sports today are highly competitive and can involve hours of repetition to perfect skills. Experts say well managed programs with close monitoring can be safe and fun. The key is prevention, learning proper technique, getting adequate rest and knowing when enough is enough.

Chelsea Grady, 16, plays in a traveling softball league and on her high school varsity team. An intense love of the game clouded her judgment. She kept throwing hard and fast, pushing through the pain in her arm and shoulder.

"I knew something was wrong when it started swelling," said Grady. "I get Sundays off. That's about it."

"You just don't expect someone so young to have an overuse injury," said Kristine Grady, stepmother.

Athletes, parents and coaches may not even realize an overuse injury has occurred. Preliminary research from Loyola University Medical Center finds children who specialize in one sport are at higher risk for any kind of injury. And another study shows young pitchers who threw more than 100 innings in a year were three and a half times more likely to be injured compared to those who pitched less.

Grady had to sit out all last year and has missed several weeks of this season. But she's lucky. There appears to be no structural damage to her arm. Rest and rehabilitation seem to be doing the trick.

"When children are rapidly growing the ends of the bones where growth occurs, they are weaker. And so that is a weak link," said Dr. Kenneth Schiffman, orthopedic Surgeon, Hinsdale Orthopaedics. "Some of these things can go on to cause problems that may not get better."

As for future health, sports medicine experts say it's hard to tell right now if overuse will have long term affects. But any injury carries the risk of problems later in life such as arthritis.

Baseball scout Terry Sullivan says parents should think about their child's future not just the here and now.

"The adults are forgetting this is a whole child. Eventually they will be the adults and maybe they won't be able to pick that arm up to brush their teeth one day or play a round of golf because it's so arthritic," said Sullivan.

Many injuries can be prevented. Little League organizations are enforcing pitch counts to help keep young arms from getting overworked. Other sports groups are considering new guidelines.

Signs that might indicate an overuse injury include:

Favoring one side of the body over another
Appearing to be in pain when using a certain body part
Decreased range of motion or decreased strength
Trouble sleeping
Stiffness in muscles or joints
Inflammation-swelling, heat

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Dr. Kenneth Schiffman
Hinsdale Orthopaedics

Dr. Gregory Nicholson
Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush

Loyola University Medical Center
Dr. Neeru Jayanthi
Sports Injury Study
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