As talented youth athletes (and their parents and coaches) chase dreams of professional stardom, many will encounter injuries along the road – often from overuse.
The statistics tell the story:
- More than half of the 7 million sports and recreation-related injuries that occur each year are sustained by youth under 24.
- High school athletes experience an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year.
Orthopedic surgeon Rowland B. Mayor, MD, adult and pediatric sports medicine specialist with Hartford HealthCare’s Bone & Joint Institute, notes that sprains, strains and breaks are going to happen to athletes, regardless of which sport they play. Accidents happen.
But injuries caused by overuse, most typically to the shoulder, elbow or knee, is often the result of early specialization – a singular focus on one sport with year-round training from an increasingly earlier age.
Confirmed by research
According to research from the National Council of Youth Sports, sports specialization does indeed lead to higher injury rates – particularly overuse injuries. One study showed a link between overuse injuries and three risk factors:
- A “high” level of sports specialization
- Playing a single sport more than eight months of the year
- Playing a single sport for more hours per week than their age
A review paper exploring pediatric overuse injuries describes how specialization may lead to overuse injuries throughout the body of a growing child, including the shoulders, elbows, low back, hips, knees, and feet.
Common overuse injuries in young athletes include:
- Baseball (particularly with shoulder and elbow injuries linked to pitching).
- Basketball (jumper’s knee).
- Gymnastics (back, elbow and ankle injuries).
- Running (plantar fasciitis and knee injuries).
- Soccer (knee and ankle injuries).
- Tennis (elbow injuries).
- Volleyball (jumper’s knee).
Growing children are especially at risk.
Sport specialization can also damage a child’s growth plates, Mayor says. Growth plate injuries are injuries to new bone tissue at the ends of a child’s bones that can affect how they grow.
“These are sensitive areas,” he says. “They can be vulnerable to injury – they can fragment or grow abnormally.”
Recovering, mentally and physically
Kids who play different sports “are giving their bodies time to recover, because different sports use different body parts,” Mayor says. And on top of potential physical damage, “there is also mental health. A single-sport athlete is more prone to burnout, fatigue, or quitting.”
Even professional athletes have an off-season, Mayor says, giving their bodies time to recover and repair.
“It’s interesting that our professional athletes get an off-season but so many expect teenagers to play year-round. They need downtime to recover mentally and physically.”