Last August, Garrett Tarbet, a kicker and defensive back on the varsity football team at Lakeside High School in Hot Springs, Ark., began feeling pain in his shins and the left foot he uses as his planting foot for kicking. The 17-year old junior didn’t want to miss practice or play, so he kept quiet and figured he’d “play through it and see if it got better.”
It didn’t. Like many young athletes, Garrett had gradually developed an overuse or repetitive trauma injury. In his case, it was a form of tendinitis. For the last six months, he has been working on an intensive rehabilitation program with his high school’s athletic trainer, TJ White. During his recovery Garrett was able to continue to play football.
Overuse injuries are caused by repetitive stress on the muscle and skeletal system without enough rest to allow the body to adapt. They are a special risk for developing bodies and immature skeletons and often happen during the adolescent growth spurt. Studies show these injuries account for more than half of pediatric sports injuries and often happen due to intensive focus on a single sport with a heavy practice and competition schedule. Unrecognized and untreated, they can sideline athletes from play and lead to more serious injuries and disability.
Now sports medicine experts are advocating a greater role for athletic trainers like Mr. White, who can help students recover without incurring lasting damage or hampering their sports activities very much. The trainers specialize in sports-related injury and rehabilitation and are licensed or otherwise regulated in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine published recommendations in 2014 warning of excessive focus on early intensive training and competition, and recommended measures including limits on repetitive movements such as pitching, preventive training and conditioning regimens, and scheduled rest periods.
Requiring a pre-participation physical exam to assess sport readiness and identify prior injury patterns “gives parents a better basis for making a decision about their child’s participation,” including whether it is best to consider alternative sports depending upon any particular vulnerabilities, says John DiFiori, head of the division of sports medicine at the University of California Los Angeles and lead author of the recommendations.
Access to athletic trainers in school sports programs has doubled over the last 20 years, but only about a third of high schools have full-time professionals on staff, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association. Moreover, many community programs such as soccer and gymnastic leagues don’t have athletic trainers on board. Some states are considering legislation to require a medical professional be present at high school sporting events.