Safe Play, Proper Training Key to Back-to-School Sports Safety
Northwestern Medicine physician offers tips for keeping student athletes healthy
As the days of summer wind down, kids are trying to make the most of their time off before heading back to school, but some are already hard at work. Many student athletes begin preparing for sports season long before it’s time to start hitting the books. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 7.3 million teenagers participate in high school sports. Sports participation is an excellent way for young adults and teenagers to stay healthy and active, but as more young athletes get in the game, physicians across the country are observing an upswing in sports-related injuries. High school athletes suffer an estimated two million injuries annually resulting in 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations. Injury has potential to not only ruin an athlete’s season, but in some cases cause long lasting problems. While not every injury can be avoided, Northwestern Medicine® sports medicine expert Michael Terry, MD, encourages student athletes and their parents to focus on safe play and proper training for a healthy, successful sports season.
“We are seeing young athletes specializing in their respective sports and positions earlier than ever before; since they are still growing and developing, proper training and preparation take on even greater importance to avoid injury,” said Terry, an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and associate professor of orthopaedics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Careful conditioning will protect from injury and help them stay in shape; it’s never too early to have kids focusing on sports safety and their health.”
Preparation for the fall sports season should begin even before the start of the school year. Young athletes should ease into training, starting with cardiovascular workouts to build stamina then progressing to strength training that targets the specific muscles needed for their sport.
“Athletes should work with their coaches or school athletic trainers to develop a conditioning program that will gradually build endurance and strength,” explained Terry. “Diving into intense workouts may cause injuries which may delay the start of the sports season or even force the athlete to sit out entirely.”
When in training, young athletes should focus on three major factors that affect sport performance: hydration, nutrition, and rest. With practice for many fall sports beginning in the summer, hydration takes on even greater importance. “When practicing or competing in the heat, drink water before, during and after activity to decrease the risk of heat-related illness,” said Terry. “Athletes who want to compete at a competitive level need proper nutrition and plenty of rest. At the high school and college level, too many young athletes try to run their bodies on unhealthy food choices and too little sleep making them more prone to injury and limiting their ability to perform.”
Sports safety should be observed during both competition and practice as injuries can occur at anytime. Generally, two types of sports-related injuries occur: acute and overuse. Acute injuries occur from a single traumatic event, such as a collision with another athlete or a misstep that strains a ligament or muscle. Examples of acute injuries are fractures, concussions, sprains and strains, dislocations or tears. While acute injuries are often harder to avoid, particularly in contact sports, teaching proper technique and emphasizing safe play can limit the risk of injury. Properly caring for equipment and assuring it works and fits correctly can also help avoid injury.
“Today’s young athletes have a tendency to train year-round, rather than only when their sport is in season which puts them at risk for overuse injuries,” said Terry. “While regular activity is good for the health, allowing the body to rest is necessary to avoid overuse; even professional athletes have an off season.”
Unlike acute injuries, overuse injuries develop slowly overtime because of repetitive stress on tendons, muscles, bones or joints. Examples of overuse injuries are Little League elbow, runner’s knee, shin splints and tendinitis. Often hard to recognize because athletes dismiss the early signs as minor aches and pains, when not treated properly overuse injuries run the risk of benching young athletes as well as causing long term damage and diminished quality of life. Overuse injuries are commonly caused by improper training and not allowing the body time to properly rest and recover.
“Once a sport season ends, cross train by trying a different, less intense athletic activity; this will keep endurance up while exercising different muscles and allowing others to restore,” said Terry. “When trying a new sport, remember to take time to learn proper technique and gradually increase the level of intensity in the workout.”
Even when conscious of proper conditioning and safe training, most competitive athletes will experience an injury at some point. Recognizing the signs of an injury and listening to one’s body will help limit damage and hasten recover. Pain is the body’s way of signaling that something is wrong, but many athletes ignore their pain attributing it as a normal part of sports participation. When athletes dismiss injuries, not only does it threaten ending their season but also future ones.
“Injuries assessed early often have shorter recovery times and better outcomes,” said Terry. “The pressure on students to perform well all the time, even on young athletes, is immense; many kids are their harshest critic and feel pressure to play through pain. Parents and coaches must take responsibility for facilitating an environment where young athletes are comfortable speaking up about injuries and taking time off when needed.”
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To find a physician at Northwestern Memorial, call 312-926-0779.