Twists and Breaks: Childhood Sports Injuries to Watch For

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As your child gets involved in new hobbies and skills, you feel a sense of pride seeing their personality and physical health grow stronger. But it can be scary knowing that with more physical activity comes more risk for injury.

Minor scrapes, strains and bruises are expected, but as many as half of all children will experience a broken bone. And most of these fractures occur while engaging in sports.

Children's bodies are still growing, so their muscles and bones have weak spots different from adults. By learning about the most common injuries they are likely to experience on the field, rink or court, you will feel ready to spring into action to protect your child if they're hurt.

Whether you take your child to a family doctor, urgent care clinic or emergency room, AdventHealth has extensive experience in helping kids get back to being kids. That means our care is as cutting-edge as it is kid-friendly by focusing on your family's physical, emotional and spiritual health.

Children Need Different Care

Treatment of injuries to bones and muscles is called orthopedic medicine. Though orthopedic doctors treat people of all ages, the specialty began with a focus on children.

The word orthopedic is a combination of the Greek for straight and child-rearing.

Children have one major advantage when it comes to fractures: Their bones can heal faster. This means the break can often be covered with a cast and left to heal on its own, without surgery.

At the same time, they face unique risks. This is because their bones are still developing, and damage to a vulnerable part of a bone the growth plate at both ends of a long bone can lead its growth off-course.

Studies have found these types of injuries comprise about 15 percent to 30 percent of all injuries to bones.

There's one more important reason to pay attention to your children's bone health: The strength they achieve now may help them decades later. Osteoporosis, in which bones become brittle and weak, has been called a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Strains and Sprains Are Most Common

The most common athletic injury children face are sprains or strains, which are often caused by stretching and twisting.

These types of injuries tend to peak in the teenage years. For young children, its the bones, not muscles or tendons, that are generally their weak point.

A twisted ankle may not seem like a big deal, but when it leads to long-term ankle instability, it can put young people off exercise. Some treatments for youth athletes have shown promise in preventing ankle injury, such as a balance training program and lace-up ankle braces.

Recovery from a sprain or strain is often summarized using the acronym PRICE:

  • Protect the area to prevent further injury using tape, splints or braces
  • Rest from activities that cause pain
  • Ice the affected area intermittently for the first few days
  • Compress the area, starting with the area farthest from the heart
  • Elevate the ankle above heart level to limit swelling

When an Injury Can't Wait

There are a few good reasons to seek medical attention when you're unsure about the severity of a stretched or torn muscle or ligament.

First, the difference between a torn muscle or ligament and a broken bone is not always clear. All three involve pain and difficulty moving a body part, for example.

Second, there may be an injury to your child's growth plates (the still-growing part of bone). Kids bones heal and grow fast, so long-term problems can arise if the bone doesn't heal in the proper direction.

Finally, if your child can't move the joint or experiences severe pain or numbness, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Sticks and Stones

Perhaps the most well-known injury of childhood, a bone fracture will affect as many as half of all children. Though you may assume a broken bone will be obvious, children's bones are more flexible and rarely break cleanly. So its worth remembering the symptoms:

  • Pain or swelling
  • Obvious deformity or crookedness
  • Difficulty or refusal to move an injured body part
  • Bruising, warmth or redness

The most common broken bone in children is the forearm, which accounts for almost one-fourth of all fractures. Comprising about 10 percent of all breaks, the collarbone is also an area to watch for.

The ankle is the most common site of a broken bone below the waist.

One of the most common types of fractures for children is called a greenstick fracture. Their bones are more flexible, but if they bend too far they can break partially, just as a piece of green wood can splinter when bent.

Wrist fractures are rarer for children because their wrists are supported by smooth, flexible tissue called cartilage until late in childhood.

If you suspect a child has a bone fracture, you should always seek immediately medical attention. Most fractures can be handled in an urgent care setting, but if the bone has broken through the skin, an emergency department is the right choice.

Who is at the Most Risk?

Boys tend to break bones more often than girls more than 50 percent more often, according to one study.

Fractures tend to peak early in puberty, which starts on average at ages 10 to 11 in girls and 11 to 12 in boys. As puberty begins, kids bones are growing quickly but their bone density can lag behind.

Parents of snowboarders should pay particularly close attention to symptoms of a fracture. One study found the fracture rate for this sport was fully four times as high as for other common childhood activities.

Horse-riding can also be a particularly dangerous sport.

However, in terms of pure numbers, football appears to be responsible for the highest number of youth athletic injuries.

It seems reasonable to expect that flag football is safer than tackle football, and that was the initial expectation of researchers who compared the two forms of the game in a 2017 study.

But they found the opposite: The flag football players were actually hurt more often. The authors didn't know for sure why, but noted that flag football players don't wear as much protective gear, but they do run and dive for flags.

Dislocation, especially at the shoulder, is also a relatively common injury. As with a twisted ankle, a shoulder that pops out of its socket can make another dislocation much more likely.

When it comes to knee injuries, female athletes face a much higher risk. They are as much as eight times as likely as boys to tear a critical ligament that holds the knee in place, called the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL.

Staying in the Game

As youth sports have become more competitive, injuries have become more common. One advocacy group, Safe Kids Worldwide, reports that young athletes visit an emergency room for a sports-related injury more than a million times a year, or about once every 25 seconds.

But keeping your child on the sidelines is hardly a good choice, considering the benefits to their social development and, yes, their bone health. Like muscles, bones grow stronger if they're used.

One study that followed children aged seven to nine for four years found those who exercised regularly had sturdier bones and no higher risk of fractures.

So what can you do to help sustain the benefits of youth sports and prevent injuries?

  • Limit your child's time on the field, especially in a given sport. One common piece of advice is that a child should spend fewer hours per week playing than his or her age.
  • Remember that pressure to perform can lead children to play longer hours and take more risks.
  • Prompt medical care can help an injury heal quickly and avoid long-term pain and disability.

With nationally recognized orthopedic care, AdventHealth taps the expertise of a team across medical disciplines to support your family in body, mind and spirit.

To learn more about our pediatric orthopedic care, visit our website.

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