Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR
Sports and physical exercise have both physical (fitness, coordination, and weight maintenance) and emotional (self-esteem, self-discipline, and confidence) benefits for children. However, participation in sports always carries the risk of injury, and children's sports are no exception. According to statistics from the U.S. National Institutes of Health(NIH), children aged five through 14 sustained an estimated 2.38 million sports and recreational injuries per year from 1997 through 1999. While the majority of sports injuries are minor, some can result in serious conditions and even lifelong medical problems.
Since children's bodies are still growing, the potential for damage to bones, tendons, muscles, and ligaments is greater than that for adults. Growing bones contain anatomic regions known as growth plates (regions of cartilage where bone growth is occurring) that are weaker than surrounding tissues and are particularly vulnerable to injury. This means that an injury that might lead only to minor damage in an adult could lead to a serious growth plate injury and even a broken bone in a growing child. Children who play contact sports are also at risk for trauma to the spinal cord and neck.
Parents (and coaches) can take the following steps to help reduce the risk and severity of sports- and recreation-related injuries in their children:
- Try to group children according to weight, size, and skill rather than chronological age, particularly for contact sports. Sometimes children who are small for their age attempt to perform beyond their capacity in order to keep up with larger and stronger peers, resulting in an increased risk for injury. Find out how a particular sports program groups its participants. Some programs even take into account parents' ratings of their child's aggressiveness and competitiveness when forming leagues.
- Be sure all sports equipment and playing fields are safe and properly maintained. Over 200,000 injuries occur on playground equipment each year, and unsecured or defective equipment can increase the risk of harm.
- Use properly-sized, safety-tested, and well-fitting protective gear when appropriate for a particular sport. Be sure that children understand the correct use of protective gear.
- Visit your pediatrician for a pre-season physical examination before beginning a sport.
- Never push a child to play a sport if he/she feels uncomfortable or physically incapable of participating in the sport. Likewise, don't push a child who is injured while playing to continue playing or "work through" the pain of an injury. Even if a child normally enjoys a particular sport, don't insist on participation if he or she is very tired or unwell.
- Find out about the facilities and coaches at your sports facility. Certified athletic trainers are present at many facilities who have experience in preventing and recognizing sports injuries.
- Always seek medical care when a child becomes injured or develops a persistent and symptom that interferes with his or her ability to play.
Reference: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), Handout on Health: Sports Injuries, April 2004.