Sports injuries are popping up beyond the realm of ESPN and Monday Night Football. Athletes of a smaller stock are sustaining injuries in school gyms and town fields across the country.
In fact, almost half of all sports-related injuries treated in emergency rooms involve children between the ages of 5 and 14.
While an active child is increasingly important in an age of obesity, an over-zealous sports schedule may be putting your child at risk.
Acute and serious injuries are often treated immediately, but a growing number of children are suffering from chronic injuries without receiving any medical attention.
Chronic conditions can develop when minor injuries are left untreated or when these injuries are aggravated by physical activity before healing has completed. One reason why chronic injuries are becoming increasingly common in children is the fact that many play sports year-round.
"Many kids today are focusing on one sport and not cross training as much. For example, a baseball athlete, perceived by his parents to be the next Cy Young, is on the school team, on one or two traveling teams, and attending sessions with the local baseball guru", says Dr. Pietro Tonino, Associate Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at Loyola University.
Even top athletes do not play the same sport year round without significant periods of rest. A suggestion to avoid this problem while keeping the child physically active is to make sure different parts of the year are devoted to different types of sports that challenge separate muscle groups.
Alternatively, pre-season conditioning can not only decrease the chance of injury, it also aids the child's performance. According to Dr. Tonino, pre-season conditioning is like "putting money in the bank", while playing the sport during the season is "making withdrawals".
A study conducted at the Texas Christian University on professional dancers reports, "to maintain status among their peers, dancers often overlook the presence of pain, resulting in acute injuries that may manifest into chronic disorders."
This phenomenon can also be recognized with athletes in other sports. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, "children often continue to participate in a game or practice, despite injury, because they do not want to disappoint their coach, teammates or parents.
"The popular belief that children are more resilient than adults, with no problem of "bouncing back" from falls and injuries, likely contributes to more children suffering from chronic health problems.
As children are still growing, their bones, joints and tendons are actually more prone to injury than an adult's. At the regions in the musculoskeletal system where growth takes place, known as "growth plates", the bones and surrounding tissues are much weaker. This introduces a higher risk of breaking bones and tearing ligaments and other tissues.
Consequently, an injury that would temporarily inconvenience a full-grown adult could possibly debilitate a child for the rest of their life.
Making Sure Your Child Is Safe
Prevention is always the best medicine, and certainly better than a visit to hospital. Being proactive about a child's safety can decrease the chance an accident occurs.
Before allowing a child to play a sport, there are few points to consider as safety measures:
-- Make sure playing fields and sports equipment are safe and properly maintained. Similarly, make sure the trainer is certified and trained in CPR and first aid.
-- Use safety-tested and properly adjusted protective gear when appropriate. Make sure the child understands the proper use and necessity of protective clothing and equipment
-- Before starting a new sport or a new season, children should see their pediatrician for a full physical examination
-- Children should never be pushed if they are uncomfortable, physically incapable or unwilling to participate in a particular sport or action. If a child becomes injured, they should never continue participating or "finish the game". Even if an injury seems inconsequential, there could be serious internal damage without immediate external signs
-- According to Dr. David Renaud, Sports Medicine Director at the Harbourfront Health & Wellness Centre in Toronto, children should engage in sports-specific warm up exercises instead of simple stretching. "Studies have been conducted that showed joints actually become 'hyper-mobile&' just after stretching, which could make it easier to damage them."
What To Do When Accidents Happen
Regardless of vigilance, accidents do happen. When a child is injured, it is essential that the child does not continue playing the sport. Even a simple sprain can develop into a complicated injury if left untreated. However, determining when one needs to put down the ice-pack and visit the doctor can be difficult.
"The threshold for a child to go see a doctor is actually much lower than for adults," says Renaud, "especially because children are not as good about communicating pain. They can walk around limping for weeks without saying anything." If a child does say he or she is in pain, it is probably serious enough to seek medical attention.
When in doubt, consult a doctor to make sure the injury does not become chronic before the child starts playing the sport again.Considering children are less likely to relay they were injured, or even state they are in pain, one has to be aware of any physical impairment or visible symptoms.
"Kids don't limp," says Renaud, "any child that is limping should see a doctor." When a child limps, vomits or is nauseated after taking a fall, it is a sure sign that immediate medical care is necessary."Kids don't lie, at least not about pain related to a sport injury," according to Renaud. "To get out of school children use the classic tummy pain excuse, but they don't easily say they want to stay in because of knee pain."
Sometimes, you just need to encourage your child to explain what he or she is feeling. Children will likely feel more compelled to report injuries if they learn that being quiet now, could mean a longer time away from their favorite sport in the future.
FoxNews.com health writer Christine Buske contributed to this report.
For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.