USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the latest column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.
In a previous column, I discussed the dangers of ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) tears facing pitchers of all ages. While this is a serious injury that can lead to reconstructive surgery, known as Tommy John surgery, baseball players aren’t the only athletes at risk of overuse injuries. In fact, approximately half of sports-related injuries sustained by young athletes ages 6 to 18 are overuse-related.
Overuse injuries are more prevalent in sports that require training of repetitive motions or skills, such as rowing, softball, volleyball, cross-country, track and field, soccer and field hockey. These injuries can lead to signs of inflammation and tendinitis. They can also cause stress fractures, tiny cracks in the bone, if the body is not given adequate time to recover or regenerate, or if the injury is blunt and with immediate or sustained impact.
Overuse injuries come on gradually and may take time for the symptoms to be noticed. As a result, they often go undiagnosed and untreated for longer periods of time. This can lead to long-term consequences, including loss of playing time, reduced function and mental exhaustion.
While more research needs to be done on specific causes of overuse injuries in young athletes, factors such as improper techniques, excessive sports training, inadequate rest, muscle weakness, imbalance and early specialization have been linked to overuse injuries.
It takes a comprehensive, multidimensional approach to reduce the risk of these injuries. Parents, athletic trainers, physicians, other medical professionals, coaches and strength and conditioning experts should be aware of the risk of overuse injuries and do their best to prevent them.
Here are a few steps that can help to minimize onset:
- Pre-participation physical exam (PPE): Student athletes should have an exam every year signed by a physician prior to any sport participation. The PPE helps to detect potentially life-threatening conditions and identify other factors that may predispose the athlete to overuse injuries. Risk factors can include injury history, stature, maturity, joint stability, strength and flexibility.
- Avoid specialization: Early specialization can lead to repetitive sport activity with little time off. Research has shown that athletes who participate in a variety of sports sustain fewer injuries and tend to have longer playing careers. This allows them to maintain a higher level of physical activity. Also, these athletes are exposed to a wider range of skills and longer periods of rest.
- Rest: Rest is critical when it comes to overuse injuries. Limit training in a single sport to no more than five days a week with at least one day off from any organized physical activity. Each year, take a two- to three-month break from that sport to allow the body to recoup. Use this time to focus on supervised strength training and conditioning, which reduces the risk of future injuries. This time off also ensures a psychological break, which can help reduce burnout and overtraining syndrome.
Although overuse injuries are common, they shouldn’t deter year-round activity. By working with a “team” – parents, athletic trainer, physician and coaches – student athletes can develop a plan that balances play, practice and rest to ensure good health and long-term benefits. For more information on overuse injuries, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association has created a handout on this topic (http://www.nata.org/sites/default/files/overuse-injuries-infographic-handout.pdf).