6 ways to keep your student athlete healthy
Back to school time is almost here and, for many children, that means a return to the athletic fields. Unfortunately, it also means a stream of sports injuries as young athletes jump head-first into daily practices and games, in many cases following a summer of inactivity.
With weakened muscles, they are susceptible to muscle strains, sprained joints and bone fractures that could sideline them for weeks and lead to permanent damage.
In the U.S., more than 3.5 million children under age 14 receive medical treatment for sports-related injuries every year, and high school athletes account for about two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You can’t go from zero to 60 in a healthy fashion,” said Robert Wilsterman, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Cape Cod Healthcare. “But you see [children doing] it all the time. That’s when you see the injuries from going too hard, too soon without proper preparation.”
What’s a parent to do when they see their enthusiastic child risking injury by overexerting themselves, or even ignoring injuries so they can continue to play? Here are some tips on both preparing your child for the school season and detecting injuries that your child might attempt to hide in order to stay on the field.
1. Communicate. Before the school year begins, talk to your child and make sure he or she understands that if something doesn’t feel right, the old credo of “playing through pain” should not be part of their vocabulary.
“There is no place for that attitude when dealing with children,” Dr. Wilsterman said. “They are not fully grown yet and you can damage them for life.”
2. Stress the Importance of Staying Hydrated. Many injuries occur when the athlete becomes dehydrated and fatigue sets in. Make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids before, during and after practice and games.
“Hydration and good nutrition are essential, especially in the hot early-season months,” he said. “Heat stroke can be deadly.”
3. Understand Burnout. If your child seems exhausted or is unable to recover fully from workouts, he or she may be injured or is training too hard. Another sign of burnout is when your child loses interest in a sport they previously enjoyed, is depressed, tired, has trouble sleeping and is experiencing mood swings.
4. Don’t Let Your Child Overdo It. Signs of overuse injuries, according to Dr. Wilsterman, are:
- Tenderness in the elbow when throwing a baseball.
- A knee is sore and swollen.
- Pain in the back of the shoulder.
- Discomfort in the front and lower parts of the legs when running.
- The lower back feels tight.
Injuries will worsen if not given time to heal. As a parent, watch for pain that cannot be tied to an acute injury, swelling, and changes in the child’s form or technique. Many young athletes will attempt to play through tendinitis, shin splints and anterior knee pain, but that’s when a parent needs to step in and insist on rest.
5. Keep a Close Eye at Home. The child complains that muscles feel sore and legs feel heavy. The child limps or feels pain when putting weight on a particular part of the body. There is tingling, numbness or weakness in the limbs, fingers or toes. These are signs of an injury that will worsen if the athlete doesn’t take a step back.
“If you child refuses to take out the trash, it might be because his arm hurts so much he can’t lift the can,” Dr. Wilsterman says. “Look for any behavioral changes, such as when the child suddenly starts using their non-dominant arm more or begins favoring a body part.”
6. Preach Patience. Athletes are at a much greater risk of reinjury when they return to the field too soon. By doing so, they place stress on the injury and force the body to compensate for the weakness, which often leads to a new injury in another part of the body. No child wants to be sidelined, but taking time off can actually result in a healthier athlete in the long term.
“When a child rushes back onto the field, it can turn a simple injury into a chronic one that won’t get better,” Dr. Wilsterman says.
Ultimately, injuries are best avoided with preparation, which means a proper warm-up and extensive stretching before embarking on physical activity. But when parents suspect something is amiss with their young athlete, it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
“There might be a lot of peer pressure on the child to continue playing and the child might feel bad about coming off the field, but that’s nothing compared to the potential long-term physical damage that can take place,” Dr. Wilsterman said.