By Michaela Gibson Morris
They run, hit, smash, tackle, tumble, kick and paddle their hearts out.
They combat childhood obesity. They learn teamwork, hard work and sportsmanship. They have fun.
What’s not to love about youth sports?
Unfortunately, young athletes are also getting hurt at unprecedented levels. There are some 3.5 million sports injuries reported in kids 14 and under annually, said Tupelo orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gabriel Rulewicz.
“About half of those are overuse injuries,” Rulewicz said. “About half of those are preventable.”
The solution is not to stop playing. But everyone needs to play smarter.
“Education is key for coaches, parents and youth athletes,” said Walt Wilkins, who heads the North Mississippi Medical Center sports training program, which provides athletic trainers to high schools and community colleges in the region.
The injuries for pitchers and concussions for football players have been well-publicized, but it’s more than those sports.
Rulewicz and his colleagues are seeing a dramatic increase in ACL injuries in female athletes under 16, particularly soccer, basketball and volleyball players.
“The majority of these are non-contact injuries,” Rulewicz said. “They stop and twist.”
A 10- to 15-minute specialized warm-up done consistently can reduce the risk dramatically, said Rulewicz, who is working the NMMC athletic trainers to roll it out to interested teams.
A lot of the problems stem from early specialization – playing one sport, intensely, year round – and professionalization – asking kids to practice and play as if they were adult pros.
It can be a fine line, and it’s different for each kid.
“You have to look at every kid individually,” Wilkins said. “What are they ready for?”
Well-known orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, who is based in Birmingham, Ala., has been particularly outspoken. He’s co-authored a book – “Any Given Monday” and is a driving force behind Stop Sports Injuries effort.
“We need to remember that they’re kids,” Wilkins said. “It still has to be fun.”
Young athletes need at least two months – preferably three to four – of active rest from their primary sport.
“Don’t stop everything, but stop overhand throwing,” Rulewicz said, in the case of baseball.
Playing multiple sports is a great way to keep kids active, but allows them a break from some of the repetitive motions. For example, a baseball pitcher could benefit from playing football or soccer in the fall or basketball in the winter.
First things first
All kids can benefit from annual checkups and an ongoing relationship with a primary care doctor, but it’s especially important for young athletes. School sports associations often require annual physicals, but they can benefit all young athletes.
These annual checkups can catch new problems or nagging issues, said Tupelo pediatrician Dr. Ed Ivancic.
The orthopedic checks that look at range of motion and review the state of any old injuries can be particularly helpful, Ivancic said. Sometimes young athletes won’t volunteer that something is hurting, but when they’re specifically asked, they’ll speak up.
“They need to be screened,” Ivancic said.
The Weston Reed Foundation will offer free physicals Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Tupelo Police Athletic League building behind the Link Centre for students grade 6 and up.
In addition to the health screenings required for sports participation, electrocardiograms, which screen for heart problems, will be available free of charge during the screening. Cardiologists are volunteering to review the EKGs and follow up with free echocardiogram if warranted.