High School Sports Injuries: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Involvement in sports provides a host of benefits for high school students. They improve coordination, fitness, and self-esteem. They teach teamwork, dedication, and perseverance. They are a great avenue for making friends, and they keep kids occupied and out of trouble. For some students, they can provide college scholarships or for a select few, perhaps a career.

However, there is also a downside to playing sports. As sports expand beyond the regular school sports season into club sports, traveling teams, and camps, they can give rise to injury and burnout. As a parent, it’s important to understand the causes and effects of high school sports injuries.

Young teens are particularly at risk for sports injuries because their bodies are still growing, and their coordination is still developing. Many children ages 14 and under are treated for sports-related injuries each year. Half of all of those injuries can be prevented with the proper use of safety gear, changes to the playing environment, and following sports rules that help prevent injuries.

What Causes High School Sports Injuries?

To make it onto a high school varsity sports team requires a lot of effort and dedication on the part of your teen, you—their parent(s) or guardian(s)—and their coaches. And while these efforts are done with the child’s best interest in mind, you may not be aware of how the professionalization of youth sports could be setting your child up for injuries.

The Effects of the Professionalization of Youth Sports

The professionalization of youth sports includes all the training, camps, club play, and travel teams athletes participate in throughout the year. Kids are coached and trained like professional athletes rather than the amateurs or novices that they are. When a child specializes in one sport rather than playing a second or third sport throughout the year, that can lead to burnout and injury.

Take football as an example. The official season runs from August to December. But some schools allow football players to replace their traditional PE period with sports-specific workouts from the end of December to spring. Spring football runs from mid-March through May, where they may work on things like conditioning, lifting, and watching film. If they opt to go to camps in the summer, those often take place in June and July and may involve contact workouts in pads. Official practice and hitting begins when school starts—then the whole cycle starts over.

This can be a grueling schedule. But this doesn’t just happen with football. It’s pervasive throughout high school sports. Some argue that this specialization benefits young athletes. They may learn to excel in one sport and that may create opportunities for the future—especially for those interested in college scholarships. However, this early specialization may actually prevent a scout from ever seeing them because they may be injured or so burned out they don’t perform well when scouts are present.

Common High School Sports Injuries

What kinds of injuries could result from specialization and burnout?

Overuse injuries are caused by repetitive stress on the joint or tendon. They occur gradually over time when an athletic activity is repeated so often that parts of the body do not have enough time to heal between playing. Doctors recommend limiting the number of teams your child plays in one season. They also recommend taking regular breaks and playing other sports as that is essential to skill development and injury prevention. Overuse injuries can include:

  • Shin Splints
  • Low back pain
  • Groin or hip pain
  • Achilles Tendonitis
  • Jumper’s Knee (Patellar Tendonitis)
  • Runner’s Knee (Chondromalacia patellae)

A doctor needs to diagnose these overuse injuries. Ignoring the issue can lead to chronic pain, limiting a teen’s sports career, and their ability to become an active adult. 

Growth Plate Injuries
Growth plates are areas of developing cartilage tissue near the ends of long bones. When a child is fully grown, the growth plates harden into solid bone. Because growth plates are the last portion of bones to harden, they are vulnerable to fracture. Growth plates regulate and help determine the length and shape of adult bone, therefore, injuries to the growth plate can result in disturbances to bone growth and bone deformity. Growth plate injuries occur most often in contact sports like football or basketball and in high-impact sports like gymnastics.

Acute injuries are caused by sudden trauma and are often out of the athlete’s control. Examples of trauma include collisions with obstacles on the field or between players. Generally, a well-trained athlete is less susceptible to injury. But an overtrained and improperly loaded athlete may be at more at-risk for injury. Common acute injuries include:

  • Contusions or bruises
  • Muscle strains and sprains
  • Ligament strains, sprains, and tears (e.g., ACL or MCL tear)
  • Fractures
  • Concussions

Just like overuse injuries, acute injuries take time to heal. Be sure to work with your school’s athletic trainer, physical therapist, or doctor to determine when your child is ready to return to play.

Concussions are significant, traumatic brain injuries caused by a blow to the head or body that results in the brain moving rapidly back and forth inside the skull. Although some sports have higher instances of concussion—such as football, ice hockey, and soccer—concussions can happen in any sport or recreational activity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement recommending that young athletes with concussions be evaluated and cleared by a healthcare professional before returning to sports. The American Academy of Neurology issued a similar statement and stressed that healthcare professionals who clear athletes for return to sports should be trained in assessing and managing sports concussions.

Burnout – The response to chronic stress of the continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery, results in staleness, overtraining, and eventually burnout. It can happen to any athlete, but it’s particularly common in younger athletes. Sports specialization, professionalization, and societal and cultural pressures on top of the physical demands increase the potential for injuries and burnout. The body must have recovery time in order to thrive physically and mentally. Signs and symptoms of burnout include: 

  • Loss of motivation and interest in activities they previously enjoyed
  • Problems with concentration, memory, or ability to think clearly
  • Change in mood or demeanor (e.g., irritability, moodiness, depression)
  • Leveled off or diminished performance
  • Increased anxiety, low self-esteem

These symptoms can appear (or reappear) at various levels and stages throughout your child’s life. While off-the-field issues can contribute to feelings of burnout (or vice versa), it is essential to acknowledge how the ongoing demands of sport may affect your child mentally.

When Injuries Occur

Whether an injury is acute or due to overuse, a high school athlete who develops a symptom that persists or that affects his or her athletic performance should be examined by a doctor. Untreated injuries could lead to worse injury, permanent damage, or disability.

Be aware that athletes often downplay their symptoms in order to continue playing. Coaches and parents should know the more common signs of injury, as listed above.

Treatment for Injuries
Treatment will depend upon the severity of the injury, and may include a combination of rest or activity modification, physical therapy, bracing, and strengthening exercises. More serious injuries may require surgery.

A player’s injury must be completely healed before he or she returns to sports activity. In the case of a joint problem, the player must have no pain, no swelling, full range of motion, and normal strength. In the case of concussion, the player must have no symptoms at rest, at school, or with exercise, and should be cleared by the appropriate medical provider.

It is important for players, parents, and coaches to understand that, depending on the type of injury and treatment required, the athlete may not be able to return to the game at the same level of play—no matter how much effort is put into injury rehabilitation.

Preventing Sports Injuries

Many high school sports injuries can be prevented through proper conditioning, training, and equipment, and by getting enough sleep and having a healthy diet. Injuries often occur when athletes suddenly increase the duration, intensity, or frequency of their activity. Young athletes who are out of shape at the start of the season should gradually increase activity levels to build back up to a higher fitness level. Additional tips to help prevent injuries include:

  • Wear the right safety gear and equipment (make sure it fits properly and is in good working condition)
  • Stretch before and after activity, complete a proper warmup, and stop activity if pain starts
  • Make sure the playing environment is well lit and free of debris and standing water
  • Use the proper techniques for the position being played
  • Follow safety rules and display good sportsmanship
  • Stay hydrated during and after sports
  • Take breaks while training and during games to prevent overuse injuries

The Importance of Hydration

Sweat lost during sports must be replaced with equal amounts of fluids each hour of intense sports activity. The athlete should drink fluids before, during, and after each practice or game. To avoid stomach cramps from drinking large amounts of fluids at once, drink about one cup of water (or sports drink) every 15 to 20 minutes. Avoid drinks with carbonation and caffeine. The most common symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Weakness
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Slight weight loss

If the athlete shows signs of dehydration, make sure they receive fluids immediately, as well as a snack. The symptoms of dehydration may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

In conclusion, sports do provide many benefits to student-athletes, but it’s important for both students and parents to understand the risks involved in their sport of choice and to know how to prevent injury. Taking precautions ahead of time can lead to a more productive and happier athlete.

If you have questions about finding the right balance between training, sport, and rest, talk to your local high school athletic trainer or with one of our physical therapists to help you determine a plan to aid in injury prevention and accelerate athletic performance. We want to help you be the best athlete you can be!

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