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How to prevent overuse injuries in young athletes

Health
Young catcher receiving pitch.

Overuse injuries aren’t a problem limited to adults or professional athletes.
Tidelands Health sports medicine physician Dr. Darwin McKnight says they’re common in children and teens, too.
“We see them in athletes of all ages,” he says. “They’re one of the most common types of conditions we treat.”
Overuse injuries occur when muscles and bones are stressed through physical activity but aren’t given enough time to recover. Examples include tendonitis, shoulder impingement, stress fractures, shin splints, jumper’s knee and more. Onset is more subtle than an acute injury and may not be apparent at first.

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Dr. McKnight, who practices at The Market Common and Murrells Inlet locations of Tidelands Health Orthopedics, says there’s a clear correlation between overuse injuries and the intensity and volume of a young athlete’s training schedule. Specializing in one sport can be contributing factor, too.
For example, a softball pitcher or football quarterback will repetitively use the same arm over and over in practice and games, which can lead to problems in the wrist, elbow or shoulder. Overuse injuries can occur in any athlete that performs repetitive motions, including soccer players, gymnasts, cheerleaders, basketball players, runners and volleyball players
One key to preventing overuse injuries – even if your child specializes in a specific sport – is to engage in diverse training and conditioning. So, for example, a soccer player might want to focus on golf during the off-season. Or a baseball player can take up running.

Diversity is key

“Diversity is essential,” says Dr. McKnight. “My recommendation is to play multiple sports throughout the year rather than exclusively playing one sport year-round. This helps prevent not only overuse injuries but also burnout in our young athletes.”

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Dr. McKnight recommends taking off at least 3-4 months per year from any given sport.
“In many sports, there are published guidelines players, coaches and parents can refer to that are meant to help prevent overuse injuries,” he says. “For example, in youth baseball there are clear recommendations for pitch counts, limiting certain types of pitches and appropriate stretching/throwing mechanics.”

Signs of trouble

Signs that your child has already developed an overuse injury include:
• Pain
• Changes in throwing speed and accuracy
• Fatigue
• Declining performance
Dr. McKnight recommends taking your child to a physician or other qualified care provider if these symptoms become apparent. He warns that trying to “play through” overuse injuries can lead to more serious complications.
“With time, repetitive activities that predispose a student-athlete to overuse injuries can cause structural damage, which may even require surgery in some patients,” he says. “Athletes need to give themselves time to recovery after exercise and pay very close attention to their overall health – it will pay big dividends in the long run.”

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