FAIRFIELD, Conn. – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 7 million sports and recreation-related injuries occur in the United States each year. More than half of those injured are between 5 and 24 years old.
Connecticut is no exception. A state Department of Public Health survey found that 40 percent of high school students reported that they were injured and had to seek medical treatment while playing sports or exercising in the past year.
That’s why many doctors in the Fairfield area are working to help spread the word about the best ways to prevent sports injuries, especially in children.
Most childhood sports injuries fall into one of four categories. Each of these types of injuries has its own preventative tactics. The National Institutes of Health tells parents to “be mindful of the risks associated with different sports and take important measures to reduce the chance of injury.”
The most common are sprains and strains, which affect overextended ligaments and muscles. One of the most at-risk of these is the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, found in the lower leg. Dr. Thomas Trojian of the University of Connecticut Health Center says the greatest risk for this type of injury is in sports with rapid changes of direction, as basketball, football, soccer and lacrosse.
To prevent ACL tears, Trojian recommends exercise programs that strengthen the hamstring muscles, core and hips. He also suggests teaching children the proper way to land from jumps.
“It’s important that the knee lands over the foot, not inside the feet,” Trojian says. “Also, shoulders should be forward, so the person isn’t landing straight up, or with straight legs.”
Another group is growth plate injuries, which damage still-developing bones of growing children. They particularly affect the long bones of the body: forearms, upper and lower legs, and hands and feet. Proper safety equipment will help prevent injuries in these cases. Strength training and a diet high in calcium to increase bone density are also important.
There are also repetitive motion injuries, such as tendonitis, which come from overuse of muscles, bones and tendons. Golfers, tennis players and especially baseball and softball pitchers are especially prone to this type of injury.
“It is all too common to hear about young players who have sustained an injury that requires a surgical procedure to repair,” writes Dr. Paul Sethi, president of the ONS Foundation for Clinical Research and Education, a Greenwich-based nonprofit dedicated to sports injury prevention. “Many throwing injuries can be avoided if you know how to condition and train properly.”
To prevent these injuries, Sethi recommends planned rest, such as keeping baseball players to pitch counts. He also prescribes a series of exercises to strengthen the rotator cuff and other joints.
The fourth category is heat-related injuries, often caused by dehydration or overexposure to the sun. Drinking plenty of water and staying in shade whenever possible are the best ways to prevent sun stroke, dehydration and similar cases.
Parents should also check with their league’s coaches for ways to avoid sports-specific injuries. Fairfield’s two Little Leagues, for example, offer tracking forms for parents to help the league stay informed about safety issues. And Fairfield’s Pop Warner Football teams have connections with doctors to help assess potential concussions.
“Fairfield Pop Warner takes the health and safety of our youth seriously,” Richard Bercik, a Fairfield Pop Warner head coach and professor at the Yale School of Medicine, wrote in an email.
The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases has a guide to preventing sports injuries for parents and children.