After a long, wet winter, it's no surprise that kids are itching to dig their cleats into the still-damp ground and get to what's important: playing ball. Spring sports season is in full bloom for baseball, soccer, softball and tennis players as well as golfers. But in today's ultra-competitive environment, the pressure on even the youngest athletes can put them at greater risk for injury.
Traumatic injuries – such as an ankle sprain on the soccer field – do occur. But what really worries Christine Panagos, regional specialist on adolescent sports rehabilitation and injury prevention with Providence Sports Care Center, are overuse injuries – especially among children ages 10 to 17.
"It's an epidemic," she said, referring to the prevalence of overuse injuries among student athletes who play multiple sports each season, sometimes every day of the week. Children between the ages of 10 and 17 are most susceptible to overuse injuries, due to the presence of growth plates during this period, Panagos said.
Growth plates are softer parts of children's long bones – a sort of placeholder for more mature bone growth. Growth plates, when present, are the weakest part of the skeleton. When overstressed, these bones may experience a traction or separation, and need time to heal. A child that plays on two or three teams at one time, and spends seven days a week active in a sport, can't sustain that kind of tension with time to recover, Panagos said.
The good news is that overuse injuries are wholly preventable. In educating families, Panagos – who has worked in the rehabilitation field for 20 years – focuses on the outcome of the student's health, rather than the game or the season.
"My process is educating the parent first and foremost," she said, noting that her message is always the same: "No student athlete should play through pain."
Adolescents are at a distinct disadvantage for sports because their bodies are undergoing significant changes as part of puberty. Muscles have a hard time keeping up with bone growth, Panagos said, and these children find themselves at a loss for coordination, more awkward and imbalanced – in general, more injury-prone.
Panagos, who works with patients from ages 8 to 94, currently serves as the physical therapy liaison between Providence Sports Care Center and the Portland Timbers – the city's Major League Soccer team. Her specialty area, however, is adolescent sports rehabilitation. She works with a student to heal the injury and prevent future injuries by looking at the child's form and flexibility, strength deficits and movement patterns. But the scope of education goes beyond the injury itself – her role when meeting with parents and their sons or daughters is to act as the child's advocate. She encourages parents to act favorably on the child's behalf – especially because the part of the brain that controls judgment isn't fully developed until roughly age 20. In other words, kids need a level-headed adult to help steer them right. These simple guidelines can help parents keep their children safe and satisfied when it comes to athletics:
- If your child is injured, don't make them play; tell the coach to take them out. Previous injury is the No. 1 cause of re-injury among student athletes.
- If your child is tired, don't make them play; tell the coach to take them out. Fatigue is the No. 2 cause of injury among student athletes.
- Pay attention to your child - is he or she getting burned out? Does he or she need a break?
- Are you pushing your child for their benefit or for yours?
- Think of their long-term fitness and well-being rather than the immediate outcome of the game or season.
Ultimately, Panagos hopes parents will respect their child's wishes to slow down, or even give up the sport altogether and pursue a different interest. Typically, she speaks separately with the student and then with the parents to get a feel for the dynamic around athletics at home and in school. Sometimes, the student pushes himself, and sometimes, it's the parents or coach. Either way, what everybody wants isn't always clearly communicated.
"Do I get through to the parents? They all seem as though they hear me," she said. "How they're going to react and respond, I don't know."
For more information on overuse and other types of sports-related injuries, visit www.stopsportsinjuries.org. To learn more about our new state-of-the-art facility and comprehensive rehabilitation services, visit us online at Providence Sports Care Center (located at Providence Park).