How to limit your child’s risk for sports injuries

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Parents with children who play sports know that sports injuries come with the territory.

Most such injuries are relatively minor. Bumps and bruises are common in contact sports. Sprains and strains occur in every activity. More serious sports injuries run the gamut from pulled muscles and broken bones to concussions.

And here’s something you might not know. According to data collected by the National SAFE KIDS Campaign and the American Academy of Pediatrics, 62% of youth sports injuries occur during practice.

The experts at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois know there are no guarantees your child will have an injury-free sports career – they treat sports injuries often. But kids can minimize risk by following safety rules for their sport and warming up properly before every workout.

Food, water and technique

“Some things you should do to prevent injuries are the same in every sport,” said Brandi Peters, an athletic trainer with OSF HealthCare. “Eat right. Stay hydrated. And try your hardest to use the proper technique. If you’re not doing those three, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Help prevent soft-tissue injuries by making sure your child eats a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of minerals, proteins and vitamins. Natural foods are best.

Drink plenty of water. The American Council on Exercise emphasizes the importance of hydrating before, during and after athletic activity.

Practicing proper technique is especially important to avoiding injury in contact sports. Brandi cited football as an example.

“It’s a high-impact sport. But if you block and tackle the right way, leading with your shoulder instead of your head, you will limit your chances of getting hurt,” she said. “Listen to the coaches. There’s a reason they tell you to do it a certain way – so you don’t injure yourself.”

Use proper equipment

Make sure your child is properly equipped for their sport. Helmets with facemasks for football, ice hockey, lacrosse, basketball and softball. Shin guards for soccer. Some positions – baseball or softball catchers and ice hockey goalies, for example – require additional equipment.

Check what is mandated, and make sure the equipment meets safety regulations. Reputable governing bodies for youth sports – such as state high school activity associations – spell out requirements in detail.

And don’t ignore the shoes.

“Every individual is different,” said Brandi. “Some people put more pressure on the inside of their feet, others on the outside. Companies today make shoes to compensate for that. It can be pricey, but you want to have shoes that give your feet good ankle support.”

Warm up before every workout

When it’s time to practice, always start with stretching exercises. It’s not a bad idea to finish your workout with a good stretch as well.

“I have athletes do a more dynamic routine before the workout and static exercises afterwards,” Brandi said. “A dynamic routine would include things like high-knee action and butt-kicks. An example of a static exercise would be reaching down for your toes for 30 seconds to stretch your hamstrings.”

Your child’s specific warmup routine depends on the sport. They should prepare the most-often used muscles for the particular activity.

Runners tend to focus on their lower body – hamstrings, quadriceps, groin, calves, etc. Swimmers might spend more time warming up their arms and shoulders. Basketball and volleyball players balance stretching between upper and lower body. And so on.

It’s also a good idea to stretch every day, even if not practicing or competing. If your child has suffered a previous injury, they should spend additional time on the injured area.

“You’re more likely to reinjure that area. Strengthening that area in advance can help prevent a recurrence,” Brandi said.

Don’t push too hard too fast

Workouts that are too strenuous or prolonged can cause lasting damage. Your child is growing. Their bodies are not fully mature.

“Some parents look at their junior high kids as small adults, but they’re still growing,” Brandi said. “Having them lift heavy weights and do high impact workouts can put them at risk for injuries. Don’t push them too hard too fast.”

Brandi encourages kids to play multiple sports. Try to avoid specializing until they’re older. Even then, they need an off-season.

“It’s a big risk for a kid to play the same sport year-round,” Brandi said. “They’re at higher risk for chronic injuries that can affect them into adulthood. Tendinitis is one example, but there’s also the risk of tendon failure and rupture.

“Every muscle group or tendon has a certain amount of lifetime. If you use it constantly, it will fatigue faster. Spread the work around your body.”

And look out for activities that rely on repetitive motion, Brandi said.

“If you’re a pitcher, don’t pitch year-round. Give your shoulder and elbow a break,” she said. “Take time off or do a different sport so you’re not doing the same exertion over and over.

“But you can still stretch every day.”

When to seek medical care

If your child does get injured, Brandi said use the acronym “RICE” as a baseline guide:

  • R – Rest
  • I – Ice to limit swelling
  • C – Compression after the ice is removed
  • E – Elevate the injured body part above the heart

If the pain continues, or if the injury does not appear to be healing, seek medical attention. For more serious sports injuries, especially if a concussion is possible, seek medical help immediately.

OSF OnCall Urgent Care is a robust system that is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day and also offers virtual visits with a provider 24/7.

Last Updated: September 12, 2023

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About Author: Kirk Wessler

After being a writer for OSF HealthCare for three years, Kirk Wessler retired in January 2022. A Peoria native and graduate of Bradley University, Kirk's experience included working for newspapers in Missouri, Texas and the Peoria Journal Star.

Kirk and his wife, Mary Frances, have five sons, four daughters-in-law and nine grandchildren. Kirk plans to spend his retirement on the golf course, mastering the guitar and traveling.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, Kids & Family