Play Ball . . . carefully

Avoiding sports injuries is part of child's play

play ballSoon after working through those first awkward steps into toddlerhood, most children become quick, agile machines whose bodies are willing and able to bend and stretch and reach for the stars. They get fast on their feet, and their muscles and joints become strong and flexible through child’s play.

Early injuries are common, mostly of the scraped knee, stubbed toe variety. Then, as children get involved in organized sports, teamwork, and competition, a whole new set of mental and physical demands — as well as injuries — develops.

Because children vary considerably in their stature as well as physical and emotional maturation, it is difficult to determine a generalized starting point for introducing children to organized sports. While 5 or 6 is a generally accepted age to begin, the best indicators often are individual interest and proclivity, says the Kids Sports Network, a nonprofit association that promotes youth sports through education. At the earliest stages, participation should focus on fun, on sports based more on physical activity than strategy, and on fostering development of the major muscles that will support participation and avoid injury.

“Sports injuries happen in children when they progress too quickly in intensity or duration, or they don’t have the strength and stability that lead to good body mechanics,” says Kelly Sheehan, a physical therapist in Community Hospital’s Rehabilitation Services department. “Also, kids seem to be specializing in sports at younger and younger ages. The more they stick with just one sport, the greater their chance of injury because they are developing only certain muscles and not counterbalancing that development through alternate activities.”

When kids enjoy a certain sport, says Sheehan, they or their parents sometimes push too hard. And in an area where sports are rarely curtailed by weather, kids often play longer seasons throughout the year without the break important for rest and recovery.

“A lot of injury prevention is common sense,” says Sheehan, listing some of the basics:
• Provide training and instruction before starting.
• Warm up before play by gradually increasing the intensity of movements related to the sport, as well as general movements and flexibility exercises.
• Stretch after warming up.
• Use proper equipment.
• Wear appropriate protective gear.
• Get enough hydration, nutrition, and rest.
• Make sure the playing field or surface is safe.
• Have adequate adult supervision.

Play ball“In organized sports,” Sheehan says, “we get a lot of weekend warrior parents pinch-hitting. The coach should be knowledgeable and trained in injury prevention.” If a sign of injury or overuse develops, such as pain or loss of function, it’s important to pay attention and respond appropriately, Sheehan says. Most issues probably won’t develop into anything serious, but some require intervention by a doctor, physical therapist, or sports medicine specialist.  

Overuse injuries should be diagnosed and treated so they don’t develop into chronic problems, Sheehan says. In some cases, relief may come only from giving up the sport; but in others, rest, physical therapy, and a different way of playing may resolve the issue.

Participating in sports, says Kids Sports Network, is a healthy way for children to channel their youthful energy in a positive direction, both physically and socially.

Their first experiences can encourage them to begin a lifelong interest in
physical fitness and good health.

Kelly Sheehan"Sports injuries happen in children when they progress too quickly in intensity or duration, or they don't have the strength and stability that lead to good body mechanics."

—Kelly Sheehan, physical therapist in Rehabilitation Services