Batter Up, Not Out

Because there is a focus on specific sports at younger ages than ever before, kids are now suffering from sports injuries previously only seen in adults, says Mark Paterno, a physical therapist and coordinator of orthopedic and sports physical therapy at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Some figures indicate that injuries among children have increased eight-fold in the past 10 to 20 years, he says, at least in part due to playing sports.

"Many years ago, we would typically only see that in adults or older athletes, or someone who did the same activity again and again. For instance, a runner may get a shin injury," he says. "However, in younger kids we're starting to see the same type of overuse injuries." The more common maladies among student athletes include: Osgood-Schlatter's disease, an overgrowth of bone in the knee; and elbow injuries requiring reconstructive "Tommy John" surgery, named for the major league pitcher. Overuse injuries among kids tend to be bone-related, rather than the tendon-related, which is more common in adults.

It's too soon to tell what the lasting effects of these injuries will be, "but anytime you do surgery on a 14- or 15-year-old child, you have to be concerned with the long-term outcome," Paterno says. He works in a specialized division of the Cincinnati hospital, which brings together physicians who specialize in sports injuries, physical therapists and researchers.

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No matter what the sport, every child athlete can help prevent injuries with a regimen of stretching to maintain flexibility, proper nutrition, regular physical exams and light, supervised strength training using their own body weight. In addition to working on drills particular to whatever sport played, parents and coaches should incorporate basic injury-prevention methods into the children's regular routine. Neighborhood coaches can collectively approach local sports medicine experts and ask for guidance in warding off injuries, Paterno says.

An effective fitness plan doesn't have to be a burden on the kids. "It doesn't have to take hours and hours before their sports participation," Paterno says. "Hopefully it's something they can do quickly if we can design a program for that athlete that gets them warmed up, that's somewhat sports-specific so they see the connection between what they're doing and what they're ultimately going to be doing on the field, and then try to get the child to value that at a young age."

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