There’s nothing like getting back outside in the sunshine after winter starts to fade and spring bursts into bloom. High school and collegiate athletes eagerly return to baseball and softball fields, tennis courts, golf courses and the track to push themselves to the limit and see how they stack up against the competition.
Nothing has the potential to put a damper on what promises to be a great season like an injury, whether it’s a sprain, strain, concussion or fracture. It’s important for athletes and their parents to know what to look for with injuries, as well as how to best prepare to safely start practicing and playing again after the off-season.
Andrew Parker, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Allen, says that while spring sports may seem “low impact” compared to those played in the fall (like football and soccer), he still sees plenty of kids in his office when the weather warms up.
“Kids who play sports like golf, tennis or track may have issues with something being strained or sore, but we don’t see the serious injuries as much,” he explains. “These are kids that may have shin splints or pain in front of the knee when they’re getting back into their sport suddenly in the spring. If they take a week or two to rest and give their bodies a chance to recover, it almost always sorts out the issue.
“The more serious problems come for the kids who don’t just play baseball and softball in the spring, but all through the year. They play spring ball, summer travel ball, showcases and fall ball, and it’s just become year-round. If baseball or softball is actually played within a season, overuse injuries are rare, but when kids are always playing the same sport, they start to have shoulder and elbow pain.”
One of the best things young athletes can do is see their primary care physician for a sports physical, which includes a medical history and a physical exam, at least six weeks before the season begins. The medical history serves to give your physician an overall picture of your health and raise any red flags that might require further testing, treatment or a referral to a specialist. He or she may ask about previous illnesses, conditions or injuries, allergies, medications and family health history. It’s crucial to be honest about all of your answers.
In addition to getting your physical, one of the most important things you can do before returning to the field, court, course or track is to gradually work your way back into playing shape. If you show up on the first day of spring training without having maintained your conditioning, you could injure yourself and be stuck on the sidelines before the season even begins.
Injuries are more likely to occur when an athlete suddenly increases the frequency and amount of time he spends training, as well as the intensity of his workouts. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests that most sports injuries can be prevented through proper conditioning, equipment and technique. A gradual return to a game-ready fitness level is the safest way to limit potential injuries, as well as knowing proper technique for the specific sport, whether it’s pitching a baseball or hitting that perfect backhand in tennis.
Parker says kids’ bodies aren’t geared to stand up to the stresses of constant conditioning and competition that have become so common.
“Until kids go through puberty, their bones and muscles aren’t mature,” he explains. “At that age, they need to just have fun and play, not focus on specializing in one sport because it’s really hard to know what their bodies are going to be suited for or capable of doing as they get older.
“In fact, there are studies that show that the most successful collegiate and professional athletes played multiple sports when they were younger. It’s hard to know if it’s because they are just good at everything or because they had better conditioning, but cross-training in several sports is really important.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends ensuring that your protective gear is what you need for your specific sport and if applicable, position. It should also address any specific physical concerns or former injuries, such as a knee brace or modified helmet. Protective and playing equipment should always be worn correctly and be inspected regularly to make sure it is still in good condition and that all items fit correctly.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most young athletes experience overuse injuries rather than traumatic injuries, with the most common being sprains (injuries to ligaments), strains (injuries to muscles) and stress fractures (injuries to bones). Strengthening muscles through conditioning exercises and increasing flexibility through stretching are both ways to help reduce overuse injuries. It’s also important to take at least one day off a week from training and at least one month off per year.
- Little League elbow: caused by overuse due to the repetitive throwing motion; affects the inside of the elbow and the elbow growth plate, and is common for pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders
- Runner’s knee: caused by repetitive motion or knee trauma; causes pain behind the kneecap, a grinding sensation and/or swelling
- Sprains: caused by falling or twisting, sprains occur when a ligament near a joint (knee, ankle or wrist) is stretched or torn; can range from mild to severe and cause pain, swelling, bruising and an inability to bear weight on the joint
- Strains: caused when a muscle is overextended and stretches or tears; mild strains may be caused by repetitive motion, while acute strains happen while running, jumping, lifting or suddenly changing direction
- Tennis elbow: caused by overuse; a common issue for tennis players and golfers, leads to pain and weakness in the outside of the elbow
Chronic or overuse injuries are characterized usually by pain when you play or exercise, and a dull ache during times of rest and/or swelling, as explained by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Acute injuries may include the following:
- Sudden, severe pain
- Inability to put weight on a leg, knee, ankle or foot
- An arm, elbow, wrist, hand or finger that is very tender
- Inability to move a joint normally
- Extreme weakness in an arm or leg
- A bone or joint that’s visibly out of place
If the injury doesn’t seem severe, athletes may utilize the R.I.C.E. method, which stands for the use of rest, ice, compression and elevation for 48 hours to decrease pain and bring swelling down. Over-the-counter medications may also provide some relief. Aspirin and ibuprofen will reduce both pain and swelling, but while acetaminophen will relieve pain, it will not help with swelling.
When possible, injured athletes should be evaluated by an athletic trainer to assess the injury and determine whether they should see a physician. If the athlete is experiencing severe pain, swelling or numbness; can’t bear any weight on the injured area; has a joint that feels unstable or abnormal; or has re-aggravated an old injury, he or she should see a doctor as soon as possible.
Parker says that while parents may be tempted to let their kids play sports year-round because it seems like everybody is doing it, they’re protecting their child from potential injury when they limit their activity.
“We’ve seen a big spike in youth injuries because kids are specializing and playing one sport all year long, so baseball players never give their elbows a chance to recover and basketball players never give their knees a chance to recover,” he says. “We’re also seeing the ‘professionalization’ of kids’ sports, where coaches are working with 10 to 14-year olds like they are professionals. These kids may be playing on both a school team and a club team, working with pitching and hitting coaches.
“We see 60 to 70 percent of kids dropping out of organized sports by the age of 13 because it’s just not fun anymore. They should be playing multiple sports and taking between two to four months off every year to let their bodies recuperate. It’s hard to make your kids take a break when you see everybody else allowing it, but they will be so much better in the long run if they’re not running their growing bodies into the ground.”