Autumn is here, and it’s a whole different ball game for youth sports!

While football receives a lot of attention because of its popularity and increased awareness of concussions, each sport comes with its own risks. “Non-contact” sports don’t necessarily protect young athletes from potentially devastating injuries. 

Special attention should be paid to sports like girls’ soccer. Studies have shown that this sport actually carries the highest risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries for non-contact sports.

The most common injuries

As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, I see all types of injuries in young athletes. Most are strains and sprains of knees, ankles, and shoulders. Also common are fractured wrists, forearms, and collarbones, which are usually the result of an athlete bracing themselves during a fall.

Concussion in football is one of the most well-known injuries, resulting in short-term effects including headaches and sleep problems, as well as cognitive effects like difficulty concentrating in class or doing homework. Recently, the potential long-term effects of concussions on brain health have been in the news. However, it’s worth noting that the science on this issue is still in its early stages. 

Football players are also at risk for injuries like collarbone fractures, lower leg (tibia) fractures, and forearm fractures. Ligament injuries from ACL tears or shoulder dislocations can also occur.

Our practice occasionally sees severe fractures like lower leg or thigh bone (femur) fractures. These usually occur when another athlete lands on or collides with a player’s leg while tackling or through some other contact. We also see and treat soft-tissue injuries like ankle ligament sprains or kneecap dislocations.

Getting the right care

Sprains and strains represent the majority of sports injuries. Most of these can be treated at home with a period of rest, ice, elevation, and gentle compression (a wrap to help control swelling). 

If families suspect a serious injury has occurred, such as a broken bone or torn ligament, they should bring the athlete to a medical professional. Signs to look for include:

  • A limb that’s crooked, deformed, significantly swollen, or bruised
  • Deep cuts or lacerations
  • If the child is unable to bear any weight on the limb

If an injury doesn’t seem too serious initially, but fails to improve with rest over a period of one to two weeks, the athlete should consult their doctor. 

An ounce of prevention

There is evidence that non-contact injuries, like ACL tears and ankle sprains, can be prevented through protocols in pre-season training programs and during in-season practices. These injury prevention protocols include stretches and exercises that specifically target deficits in young athletes’ posture, weak muscle groups, and overall flexibility. 

Parents can consult with sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, and athletic trainers for more information about injury prevention programs. Young athletes should be encouraged to work with their coaches, trainers, and parents to incorporate these programs into their daily athletic routines.

While it’s more difficult to “prevent” contact injuries like broken bones, wearing protective equipment that fits appropriately can help. In football, good-fitting helmets and proper tackling technique can help minimize concussion risk. 

Remember, kids should always follow the rules of the game. Many of these rules are designed for both fair play and safety. 

Advice for parents

Work with your child and their coaches when getting back into fall sports. In addition to the acute problems discussed above, overuse injuries also represent a significant challenge to athletes.

  • Ensure that an appropriate amount of rest is built into your child’s schedule. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends taking at least one day off each week and at least one month off each year. This allows the body adequate rest and time to recover.
  • Some experts take this a step further, recommending that parents limit a child’s time playing organized sports to no more than his or her age per week. For example, an 8-year-old should participate for no more than eight hours per week.  Of course, “free play” is always encouraged and does not count towards this limit.
  • Playing multiple sports, rather than specializing in just one sport, is also important. This ensures that your child is working different muscles and practicing different skills and movements, which will help prevent overuse injuries.

Youth athletes should also avoid “playing through the pain.” If something hurts, the activity may be too much.

Playing sports is an important part of growing up and helps foster not only physical abilities, but also social skills and emotional well-being. Remember, sports should be fun! After all, fun is the reason why our youth athletes are playing in the first place.

Here is a link to the 2017 AAP Sports Injury Prevention Tip Sheet.

Aristides Cruz, Jr., MD, MBA

Dr. Aristides Cruz is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. His areas of interest include traumatic injuries, fracture care, treatment of sports-related conditions and general pediatric orthopedics.