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Preventing Kids' Sports Injuries

Simple precautions go a long way, doctors say

SATURDAY, May 5 (HealthScout) -- To many parents whose kids are involved in sports, sprained ankles, pulled muscles and broken bones are all part of the game.

But experts say many sports injuries can be prevented with some logical precautions.

At a recent meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in San Francisco, doctors discussed the problem of children's sports injuries and how they can be eliminated.

For starters, a young athlete should have a physical exam before the season begins.

"Most doctors encourage a yearly physical for youngsters," says Dr. Mary Lloyd Ireland, an orthopedist and consultant at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Lexington, Ky.

"Sometimes high school individuals have been in a recent growth phase. Or, the opposite could be happening -- you've got an immature student who is one-third the size of other players. In those cases, you might want to counsel them to think about another sport," Ireland, a team physician for Eastern Kentucky University, says.

Conditioning exercises and strength training appropriate for the age of the child are also important.

Girls, for instance, often develop kneecap pain when participating in sports that require a lot of running, because of growth patterns that cause their hips to widen.

"Usually, if they have not developed the complementary inside thigh muscle in order to help hold that kneecap more squarely in the groove of the femur bone or thighbone, therein lies the problem," explains Dr. Letha Griffin, a team orthopedist at Georgia State University.

"If we can get those girls before they are symptomatic and put them in good strengthening programs . . . then we have taken a major step in trying to prevent sports injuries," she adds.

Once kids get involved in sports, regardless of the shape they're in, they are often subjected to practice regimens more suitable for professional athletes, notes Dr. David H. Janda, an orthopedic surgeon and director of the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"Probably the No. 1 leading cause of sports injuries in youth is overuse, where student-athletes are trained at an inappropriate level. They're trained like they're Olympic athletes even though they're not, and this leads to overuse injuries in their shoulders and knees and elsewhere in their body," he says.

Ireland adds, "The sports I see of concern in the younger athletes, in terms of overuse, are baseball, gymnastics and figure skating."

But Janda points to another practice drill that particularly concerns him: "heading," which is the bouncing of soccer balls on kids' heads to prepare for a game.

In a study of the drill's effects, Janda says, he found that young athletes who had regularly participated in heading drills had diminished memory and information-processing ability.

"I think this is a significant problem that is greatly underestimated," he says.

But there's an easy solution, he adds -- use lighter balls like a beach ball during practice.

"That way, they're only heading during the real games and then it is much less frequently," he says.

Janda also says there's also a simple solution to the leading cause of baseball and softball injuries -- sliding into bases during games.

"When we switched half the fields at the University of Michigan into using breakaway bases, and left the other half to have the standard stationary bases, there was a reduction in sliding injuries by a full 96 percent and the associated health-care costs by 99 percent," he says.

"There are huge misconceptions in the public right now -- that injuries are not preventable, that they are simply part of the deal if kids participate in sports, that they don't have long-term ramifications and that they are not that common anyway," he notes.

But, he adds, "our contention is injuries are far more abundant than they should be."

"The good news, however, is that with more awareness, the vast majority of these are completely preventable," he says.

What To Do

You can read more about preventing kids' sports injuries in these HealthScout stories.

Read more about research on how sports injuries can be prevented at the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine.

Or visit the National Safe Kids Campaign for more information.

SOURCES: Interviews with David H. Janda, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and director of the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine, Ann Arbor, Mich., author of Awakening of a Surgeon; Mary Lloyd Ireland, M.D., an orthopedist and consultant at the Shriners Hospital for Children, Lexington, Ky., and team physician for Eastern Kentucky University; American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons press release
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