News

Playing It Safe

His patients include some of the planet's most awe-inspiring athletes. Take the extraordinary Alan Iverson or legendary center and former UW Husky Todd McCullough. But Nicholas DiNubile, MD, an orthopedist who cares for the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, isn't urging others to emulate these superb players. Instead, he's issuing a warning: "Push your kids too far too fast competitively and you risk not only injuring them but turning them against sports for a lifetime."

Valley Medical Center's Wuaca Luna, MD, sounds a similar theme. A fellowship-trained sports medicine physician, Dr. Luna says it's possible to damage the development of a still-growing youngster's body through a training regimen that isn't age-appropriate. "A Little Leaguer just isn't physically ready to throw a curve ball," he says. Other examples include young gymnasts who practice 5 hours a day.

Careful attention both to prevention practices and physical conditioning are among the "exercise prescriptions" Dr. Luna stresses to his young patients. He also suggests checking the recommendations of the American Academy of Sports Medicine.

So what's behind the boom in competitive athletics for children? "Up until a few years ago I would have said it was coaches," remarks Dr. DiNubile. "But now, without question, it is the parents."

Experts advise that parents of child athletes ask themselves some hard questions. Are you leading your athlete, or is he or she taking the initiative with regard to training, levels of competition, camps, and tournaments? Consider whether you are living vicariously through your kid's accomplishments. "That's a prescription for repetitive stress or overuse injuries," Dr. Luna says. Soccer, an especially popular sport for both boys and girls in the Northwest, has also seen rapid growth in the frequency of serious injury. The practice of headers, especially those resulting in subsequent concussions, worries physicians because of the possibility of long-term damage, Dr. Luna says.

Some sports injuries are more common in women than in men. One example is the anterior cruciate ligament tear. (The ACL is the major stabilizer of the knee. A tear can put a young athlete out of commission for 6 months or more.) According to Seattle Pacific University's soccer coach Cliff McGrath, a member of a National Collegiate Athletic Association body researching the matter "girls outpace boys in ACL tears by a rate of 6 to 1."

Many experts believe the injury disparity—which also occurs in basketball and volleyball—has to do with anatomic, neuromuscular, and joint laxity differences between males and females. But according to Rob Sancilio, PT, the good news is that studies have shown preventive training programs can significantly reduce the number of ACL injuries women experience. Sancilio, a physical therapist with Valley's Rehabiliation Services, says these programs include specific strengthening, proprioceptive and agility exercises. "This type of training can reduce the risk factors, and thus the incidence, of ACL injuries in female athletes."

And be realistic about aspirations. If you're already dreaming about a Division I scholarship, take the time to educate yourself about whether that goal is realistic. Parents should also be prepared to take the lead when it comes to prevention measures. Make sure your child has the protective equipment the sport requires and don't let them practice on fields with holes, debris, or other hazards. Be alert to signs of problems, and don't let your injured child return to the sport before they're ready.

Finally, Dr. Luna urges parents to consider the other major difficulty regarding kids' sports—the children who partake in no exercise at all. Again, parental intervention may be key. Perhaps your child isn't suited to competitive sports, but there remain many other options: pursuits such as skiing, ballet, even fencing. This may mean an extra investment in time. But once you make a commitment to your child's physical well-being, you'll find the benefits last the rest of their lives.

Kids' Athletics: No Longer Child's Play?

Over 30 million American children take part in organized sports annually, and most will find themselves both happily and healthily engaged. For a growing number, however, injuries no longer consist of harmless bumps and bruises. Head injuries, ACL tears, and broken bones—once the preserve of the hard-charging professional athlete—are becoming all too common in youth sports, in some instances leaving lasting damage.

According to the American Academy of Sports Medicine, 3 million children ages 14 and under get hurt annually playing sports or participating in recreational activities. And approximately 800,000 of those will experience injuries serious enough to warrant treatment in a hospital emergency room. Sports and recreational activities contribute to 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among American children.

Parents who want to keep their young athlete out of the ER may need to pay closer attention to what's an appropriate activity for their age, cautions Valley Medical Center physician Wuaca Luna, MD. Dr. Luna treats children in a wide number of sports at Valley Medical Center's Sports Medicine Clinic.

It's tempting to watch the World Series and want to immediately emulate star players, Dr. Luna says. "But children's physical development can be impeded by adapting an action that isn't age-appropriate. A Little Leaguer just isn't physically ready to throw a curve ball." Other examples include young gymnasts who practice 5 hours a day. "That's a prescription for repetitive stress or overuse injuries," Dr. Luna says.

Soccer, an especially popular competitive sport for both boys and girls in the Northwest, has also seen rapid growth in its frequency of serious injury. Girls experience ACL tears—which can leave the athlete sidelined for 6 months or more—in greater percentages than boys. And the practice of soccer headers, especially those resulting in subsequent concussions, are increasingly the subject of worry among sports medicine specialists because of the possibility of long-term damage, Dr. Luna says.

Careful attention both to prevention practices and physical conditioning are among the "exercise prescriptions" Dr. Luna stresses to his young patients. He also suggests familiarity with recommendations from the American Academy of Sports Medicine.