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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Millions of kids at risk from sports injuries

Injured young athletes and their parents who are pushing for a speedy return to the athletic field may be doing more harm than good.

“The biggest problem is overuse,” said Dr. Chris Couture, a sports medicine specialist in Merrimack. “Kids are overloading without taking time to be kids. ...

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Injured young athletes and their parents who are pushing for a speedy return to the athletic field may be doing more harm than good.

“The biggest problem is overuse,” said Dr. Chris Couture, a sports medicine specialist in Merrimack. “Kids are overloading without taking time to be kids.

“We’re getting better at recognizing that on the professional side. The hard thing is to convey it. They’re training for the future, and getting them to hold back is a hard thing to do. You definitely see it more and more.”

Thus, Couture said, specialists have to resist the urge to rush a young athlete back.

“The sports medical community definitely sees it more,” he said, “but the hard part is every parent thinks their kid is going to be the next Mia Hamm, et cetera.”

All across America, young athletes are pushing themselves harder than ever. Some have dreams of making the pros. Others want to compete at a high enough level to get a good scholarship and extend their athletic careers into college.

Parents of younger athletes are taking more aggressive steps to improve their children’s performance, such as sending kids away to specialized athletic camps and having them play the same sport all year round.

When all of this work comes crashing down on an athletic field because of a serious injury, the effects can be severe physically, emotionally and financially.

Starting next Sunday, The Telegraph will launch a six-day multimedia series of stories called “Broken Athletes.” The series will examine advances in the field of sports medicine, recovery time for student-athletes, progress in concussion detection, tips on avoiding injury, examination of college athletic eligibility and the stories of injures athletes – some of whom made it back onto the field, while others didn’t.

If there’s any doubt about the scope of the problem, consider these numbers:

High school athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year.

The injury bug hits the middle school and elementary school children just as hard. More than 3.5 million kids younger than 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries each year; 40 percent of those injuries are treated in hospitals.

On average, the severity of injuries increases with the age of the participant, and nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students are because of overuse, which occurs over time from repeated motion.

And when an injury occurs, the sports medicine professionals do their best to help young athletes heal, and hopefully resume their active routine.

Couture said sports physicians have to stress more and more that youths and parents should be guarded against overuse.

“They should take a season off, perhaps, from a sport,” he said, “and not do the same sport at the same time for three or four teams.

“That’s a huge thing we’re seeing – and that’s the biggest issue I want to get out to the public.”

Couture said the medical community is better at recognizing youth injuries and can be more aggressive in treatment.

But, he said, that can sometimes lead to a recovery that on the surface appears fine, but can eventually be problematic.

Dr. Dan O’Neill, of Plymouth, who specializes in sports medicine and sports psychology, said a mistake often made in treatment is treating each athlete’s injury in the same manner, thus miscalculating the recovery time.

“You can have an injury that happens to a middle school soccer player, but the treatment may not be good for a high school football player,” he said. “This idea of return to play is a big factor. We don’t always know. At the end of the day, you’re still dealing with human beings.”

Another local specialist, Dr. James Vailas, of Amherst, agrees.

“The issue of return to play is still challenging us,” he said. “That’s the key. How long do you keep them out, keep them from returning too soon so as to prevent recurrence?”

The other cautionary approach that sometimes is overlooked, Vailas said, is recognizing the cause of the injury.

“It’s not always about, say, doing the surgery,” he said. “It’s about why are we getting these injuries?

“It’s helped by coaching education, parental education and athlete education.”

And, Vailas said, if a specialist is connected with a certain team, he needs to be visible in the athlete’s environment.

“To be a team doctor, you need to be part of that team,” he said. “You can’t be sitting in an office and just have athletes come and see you there.”

Tom King can be reached at 594-6468 or tking@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow King on Twitter
(@Telegraph_TomK).