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April 18, 2006 > Youth Sports Safety: A Winning Game Plan

Youth Sports Safety: A Winning Game Plan

Watching your child participate in a sporting event can be a heartwarming experience. Having your child get injured in that sporting event, however, can be a heart rendering nightmare.

Millions of children are injured each year while participating in sports and fitness activities, according to the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation (NYSSF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing the number and severity of youth sports injuries. As part of its ongoing efforts, the NYSSF sponsors National Youth Sports Safety Month during the month of April.

"Sports injuries can often be avoided by following some common-sense guidelines," says Dr. John Jaureguito, an orthopedic specialist and medical director of the Washington Hospital Sports Medicine Center. "The first step in injury prevention is to make sure your child has a pre-participation sports physical, especially for contact sports, to make sure he or she doesn't have any particular health problems that would preclude participation in the chosen sport."

Jaureguito notes that during a sports physical, the doctor should ask detailed questions about your child's medical history, including any previous injuries, chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes, congenital heart problems and family history of cardiovascular disease. The physician also should perform a thorough physical exam, listening to the heart and lungs, checking blood pressure and pulse, testing for vision and hearing problems, assessing joints for strength and range of motion, and evaluating muscle mass and flexibility.

Sports Medicine Center Coordinator Mike Rogers, a certified athletic trainer, emphasizes the importance of warming up before participating in any sport. "Doing a light cardiovascular exercise such as jogging for 5-10 minutes and then stretching will help your child avoid muscle strains," he explains. "You don't want to stretch cold muscles. I always advise people: Warm up to stretch - don't stretch to warm up."

In addition to warming up prior to playing any sport, general overall conditioning can help ensure safer sports participation. "Don't let your kids become 'weekend warriors' who risk injury because they aren't in proper condition," says Dr. David Bell, co-medical director of the Washington Hospital Sports Medicine Center. "Encourage your children to be physically active every day."

A father of four who keeps busy with his children's sports activities, Bell notes, "Getting your kids to exercise doesn't have to be like 'boot camp.' Find fun ways to exercise together, like playing catch or shooting hoops. Parents can set a good example for their children by being active, too."

Wearing the proper equipment also can help your child avoid injury. "Make sure your child's equipment fits properly, including shoes with good arch support to avoid things like shin splints," Rogers says. "For contact sports such as lacrosse and football, it's especially important to have properly fitting equipment. The use of safety equipment is recommended for many different sports - helmets and pads for shoulders, knees, elbows, wrists and ankles. Protective eyewear and mouth guards may also be advised for certain sports."

One of the most common sports injuries during the spring and summer baseball season is "Little League Elbow," according to Jaureguito. "Little League Elbow is a repetitive stress injury caused by overuse of the arm and elbow during overhead throwing," he explains. "Kids will try to throw too many pitches and too many innings, or to throw curve balls at too young of an age. Because children in Little League are still developing physically, they need to progress throughout the season, gradually increasing the number and intensity of throws. And of course, if pain or discomfort arises, the child should rest the elbow joint for several days before resuming throwing. If pain persists, you should consult a physician."

A former high school and semi-pro pitcher, Juareguito now coaches his own 11-year-old son as a pitcher in Little League baseball. "Safety in youth sports has progressed a lot in the past several years," he notes. "They are becoming much more strict about requiring protective gear and enforcing safety rules. In Little League, for example, we already limit the number of innings that pitchers can throw. Beginning next year, we also will limit the number of pitches a player throws as well. Other sports are adopting more stringent safety rules, too. Some sports leagues even require their coaches to be certified in CPR."

In spite of enhanced safety rules, young athletes still face the risk of injuries. "You are always going to see sports injuries, especially in contact sports such as football, lacrosse and basketball," Juareguito says. "We treat athletes from a wide range of sports, from long-distance runners with stress fractures to badminton players with injuries to their shoulders and knees."

Other common injuries include being hit in the head with a misdirected ball or bat, abrasions, blisters from ill-fitting shoes and sprained ankles. "Sometimes injuries arise when a child is playing with kids who are a lot bigger or older," Rogers comments. "Most organized youth sports activities carefully group children by age and/or weight to avoid such problems."

Rogers adds that young athletes also need to eat a balanced diet, including plenty of carbohydrates that provide energy for working muscles. In addition, they should drink plenty of water before, during and after sports activities, and be aware of the symptoms of heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heatstroke. He also cautions young athletes not to use steroids or food supplements that could be potentially dangerous. "Many substances sold over-the-counter as 'nutritional supplements' are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration," he says. "Some of these products contain untested ingredients, and their claims for performance enhancement don't need to be backed by scientific research. Before you take any food supplement, be sure to consult your physician."

The value of participating in sports extends beyond the physical benefits, Bell observes. "Research has shown that kids who are active in sports - especially when their parents take part, too - are much less likely to become involved with drinking, drugs, smoking, sex and violence," he explains. "Sports can help bolster children's sense of self-esteem and reduce their likelihood of engaging in risky social behaviors."

The Sports Medicine Center at Washington Hospital is staffed by sports physicians, physical therapists and certified athletic trainers who are experienced in helping injured athletes return to their favorite activities as well as prevent future injuries. For more information about the Sports Medicine Center's services, please call (510) 794-4671.

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