It was already a busy shift in my emergency department when I saw my next patient -- an injured teenage boy, still in his football shoulder pads with his jersey cut open to expose a clearly broken wrist. As I cared for him, two more teammates came in -- both with broken bones, each boy more exasperated than the last.
Sensing a pattern, I silently wondered to myself what sort of gladiator football game were these boys playing?
It turned out that they were injured in an inter-squad scrimmage -- not even a real game! However, it was a setup for injuries: the first game after vacation so some players were less conditioned, new players were joining for the season, and the starting roster was based on performance in that scrimmage, which meant everyone had something to prove and played more aggressively.
Sports are hugely important for children and teens' development, health, and even academic performance. But, they are also a prime source of injury in this age group. More than 8,000 kids are treated EVERY DAY in ERs for sports and recreational injuries. So, what are the key steps to encourage a child to be active and compete, while also ensuring that they're safe?
1. Use the proper equipment, correctly: Wearing safety equipment is crucial - and just as important is wearing it appropriately. Equipment must fit correctly, be up-to-date with current safety standards, AND be specific for the appropriate sport to provide protection.
2. Know the signs to pull your child out of play: Whether it's due to heat and dehydration, a concussion, or other signs of early injury, many children and teens try to ignore their symptoms and keep playing. So, parents and coaches have to recognize the signs. Pay attention to the heat index, the amount of equipment (heavy pads increase overheating risk), and your child's hydration status. If they show signs of a concussion, including dizziness, headaches, vomiting, loss of consciousness, difficulty with balance/concentration, or confusion, they should be pulled from play until they can be evaluated.
3. Avoid Overuse Injuries: With the increased focus on competitive sports and early specialization, overuse injuries are more and more common in children and teens. By some estimates, they account for approximately 50 percent of all sports-related injuries. Adolescents may be especially vulnerable due to growth spurts, immature bones, and growth plates. Reduce this risk by having weekly/yearly participation limits, rest periods, appropriate cross-training and diversifying sports participation throughout the year, especially at young ages.
4. Practice the right technique: Proper technique can be the difference between a healthy child and an injured one -- from rotator cuff injuries to shin-splints, ACL tears to spinal cord injuries from improper tackling. Make sure that whatever sport your child is doing, they're practicing it correctly.
Children have so much energy -- and ability to "bounce back" -- that we can easily forget their additional vulnerability to injury, and that growth plate and other injuries can harm development for the rest of their lives. Take steps to keep them healthy, ensuring a love of sports and physical activity for their entire life.
This article first appeared at EmergencyCareforYou.org.
About the author: Dr. Darria Long Gillespie is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, SVP of Clinical Strategy at Sharecare, and a national spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). Follow her on twitter @drdarria and ACEP @Emergencydocs.