In recent years, we’ve begun to see a significant increase in overuse injuries in children – in many cases associated with sports-related activity.
The pressure to compete has led to children “specializing” in one sport at an early age, and it is not uncommon for children to play just one sport year-round. I often explain to parents that pediatric patients are not “small adults.” Because young athletes are still growing, they are at a different risk for injury than adults.
Overuse injuries occur gradually when an athletic activity is repeated often and the same muscle groups or bones are stressed and unable to have time for recovery. I frequently see young athletes for foot and heel pain, anterior knee pain and elbow and shoulder pain resulting from overuse.
The most common overuse injuries involve the knee and foot. Muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones and growth plates can be affected. In children, these structures are still growing and developing. Bones grow first, pulling at tight muscles and tendons. This makes younger athletes more prone to muscle, tendon and growth plate injuries. Growth plates are the areas of developing cartilage that allow kids’ bones to grow and lengthen. The areas of cartilage tend to be weaker than the associated ligaments and tendons. Repetitive stress can lead to fractures of the growth plate.
Many overuse injuries can be prevented by not overdoing a single sport and giving growing bodies adequate rest between games and seasons. Cross training is key to avoiding excessive strain on one set of muscles or bones and to developing other skills and preventing injury.