Dr. Neeru Jayanthi sees quite a few young athletes in the primary care and sports medicine clinics at Loyola University Health System and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Surprised by the growing number of sports-related injuries he was treating, he organized a research project to track and document patterns in their occurrence. Since its start in 2010, the study has enrolled 1,190 kids, ages 7 to 18, with the goal to follow them over three years of sports participation. In his latest update, Dr. Jayanthi reported that kids from families who can afford private health insurance are much more likely to specialize in one sport and, as a result, suffer more serious overuse injuries than children on public health programs.
In previous research updates, the Loyola team has found some interesting twists in youth sports injuries. For those kids that spent more hours per week either practicing or competing in a single sport than their age, they were 70% more likely to pick up an overuse injury, like tennis elbow, stress fractures, youth pitching elbow, runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis or shin splints. So, if a 10 year old soccer player spent more than 10 hours per week on the field, their chance of injury jumped by over two-thirds.
At the recent American Medical Society for Sports Medicine Annual Meeting, Dr. Jayanthi reported that the athletes and their parents were surveyed on their socioeconomic status to look for differences across families. Focusing on just one sport was much more common in families that had private health insurance, with 30% of those athletes specializing versus 18% of those with public insurance. The data also showed that kids who were restricted to a single sport had about 2-3 hours less per week of unstructured play, whether that be just running around outside, pick-up games of any sport, bike-riding, etc.
Due to repetitive use of the same muscles, 13% of private insurance athletes suffered a serious overuse injury as compared to just 8% of public insurance kids.
“Intense specialization in one sport can cost thousands of dollars a year in equipment, fees, transportation, private lessons, etc.,” Dr. Jayanthi said. “Having the financial resources to afford such costs may provide increased opportunities for young athletes to participate in a single sport.”
His recommendations for parents to limit these injuries include:
- Increase the amount of unstructured free play. Spend at least twice as many hours per week in free play than structured sports.
- Do not spend more hours per week than your age playing sports.
- Do not specialize in one sport before late adolescence.
- Do not constantly play competitive sports. Take at least 2-3 months off per year.
- Take at least one day off per week from sports training.
To help parents understand and manage their children’s sports schedules, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the National Athletic Trainers Association have created a campaign called Stop Sports Injuries.
“Kids often receive pressure from their parents or coaches to be the best in one given sport, when in reality participating in free play and a multitude of sports from an early age is the best strategy to create an outstanding athlete,” said William Levine, MD, Chair of the STOP Sports Injuries Advisory Committee.
By following these common sense guidelines, kids can still develop their skills in their favorite sports but also avoid time on the sidelines because of preventable injuries.