The Dangers of Sports SpecializationInjury Prevention
Every young athlete dreams of the pride and exhilaration of hitting the game winning home run, or scoring the goal that clinches the championship. In today’s competitive sports environment, youth are under more pressure than ever to train harder and longer to excel in their sport, often with debilitating consequences, says sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, Demetris Delos, MD.
The greatest shift in youth sports in the last generation has been the trend toward sports specialization and year-round training. Twenty years ago, young athletes typically played a particular sport only during that sport’s season (i.e. football in the fall, baseball in the spring and summer), and most kids sat out a season or a summer. Today’s young competitors don’t seem to enjoy that luxury. Unfortunately, this has also led to a surge of sport specific injuries.
A recent study at the Departments of Kinesiology, Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for instance, found that high school athletes who trained in one sport for more than 8 months were more likely to report a history of overuse knee and hip injuries, than those who had played a variety of sports throughout the year or played sports at less intense levels.
The results of this study reflect what orthopedists have noticed in the last decade with the increasing number of kids showing up in our offices with throwing injuries, torn knee cartilage and stress fractures.
PROFESSIONAL LEVEL INJURIES
The growing corps of young adolescents and pre-adolescent baseball pitchers is now throwing excessive numbers of pitches during an unusually high number of innings for immature arm muscles. This has led to an epidemic of young athletes suffering ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries, requiring the so-called Tommy John Surgery. Tommy John was a left handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970’s, who was the first baseball player to undergo UCL reconstruction surgery. His successful recovery and return to achieve a record of 288 career victories.
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in youth athletes are also increasing at an alarming rate. While ACL tears are not so closely related to a particular sport statistic the way UCL injuries are tied to pitch count, clearly the rapid rise of sports that involve running and sudden pivoting – think soccer, lacrosse, football, basketball and rugby – increases the likelihood of season ending ACL tears and reconstructive surgery.
Unlike ACL injuries, which can be dramatic on-field experiences with players being helped off the field, the vast majority of injuries associated with excessive specialization and training are overuse injuries. Overuse injuries develop slowly over time, starting perhaps as a mild twinge before progressing into relentless, often debilitating pain. Ironically, these injuries are relatively easy to treat with a period rest and activity modification. All too often, players, their coaches and, sadly, parents, are often reluctant to have the athlete sit out a few practices and games. Left untreated, overuse injuries can lead to tears in the muscles and tendons of the affected area, which require a lengthier rehabilitation and sometimes surgery.
Overuse injuries are typically sport specific. In baseball, the upper extremity is most often affected. With Little league shoulder, the growth place of the humerus (arm bone) becomes inflamed by the repetitive motion of throwing with excessive force. Similarly, Little league elbow involves injury to the growth plate along the inner portion of the elbow.
In the lower extremity, overuse injuries of the knee and ankle are very common. Osgood Schlatter and Jumper’s knee are injuries to the growth plate of the knee that can be a frustrating source of pain. These injuries are typically associated with repetitive impact activities (running, jumping, etc.) as seen in basketball, soccer and track. In the ankle, Sever’s disease can lead to pain in the back of the heel.
HOW CAN WE PREVENT INJURIES?
The solution is simple but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Rest and activity modification can be difficult to execute in the middle of the season when the athlete is invested in playing and when parents have already invested much time and money to the sport.
Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon parents to insist their child rest to give the body the opportunity to heal before more serious injury occurs. If a week or two of rest doesn’t resolve the condition, the young athlete should be evaluated by an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist.
Repetitive activities such as throwing or running can lead to changes in the development of growing bones and joints. It has been known for some time now that significant amounts of pitching during adolescence can change the rotation and shape of the shoulder.
Moreover, there is a growing body of evidence indicating certain sports played excessively during adolescence are associated with the development of femoroacetabular impingement syndrome (hip impingement), which can lead to hip problems often requiring surgery in adulthood.
In addition, numerous studies have shown that exposure in youth to a range of different sports that utilize different muscle groups and mechanical skills lead to the greater overall athleticism and better athletes.