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Student-Athletes: Preventing Minor to Major Injuries

Minor to Major 1

Oftentimes, student-athletes are reluctant to tell anyone about a potential injury for fear of being sidelined. The reality is that sometimes this strategy backfires, resulting in longer playing absences, or even permanent damage. 

Cody learned the hard way that the pain he was experiencing while pitching was an indicator of a more serious medical condition. After pushing through the pain for several years, he finally sought medical care when he could barely squeeze a baseball after 20 pitches. 

It turned out that Cody had a superior labrum shoulder tear from anterior to posterior, otherwise known as a SLAP tear. He missed an entire baseball season.

Listen to Pain

Injuries to the muscles, tendons and ligaments are the most common soft tissue injuries. They are classified as first, second or third degree, with the latter indicating a significant tear, says Brad Brown, M.S., ATC, LAT, director of athletic training outreach for the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute.

Pain and swelling are common symptoms. Treatment should follow the RICE regimen of rest, ice, comprehension and elevation for at least 48 hours. Next, an athlete should exercise to regain strength and range of motion, and use heat-based therapy. If pain persists after one week, don’t ignore it, but see a sports medicine physician. 

“With a first-degree injury, an athlete could miss up to one week of play, whereas with a second-degree injury there are probably small tears that require one to three weeks of rest,” says Brown. With a third-degree injury, an athlete could miss anywhere from six weeks to one year of play, depending on the type of injury and whether or not surgery is required.

In one study, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school athletes playing in nine sports showed higher injury rates during competition than in practice settings. Football had the highest injury rate, followed by wrestling, boys’ and girls’ soccer, and girls’ basketball. Those sports reporting the lowest injury rates were boys’ basketball, volleyball, baseball and softball.

Rethink Sports Specialization

A troubling trend seen by sports medicine specialists is overuse injuries in adolescent athletes. These injuries, which occur in a wide range of sports, can affect muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones and growth plates.

“Children are starting sports at a young age, and then specializing in a single sport early on,” says Brown. “Then they play year-round, allowing no time for rest and recovery. This results in repetitive-use injuries."

"Today, sports have become so competitive at such a young age that we’re seeing injuries in adolescents we didn’t see 15 years ago.”

Volleyball players and swimmers who don’t receive rest tend to struggle with shoulder injuries, while baseball players who engage in repetitive throwing have elbow and shoulder problems. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the most common overuse injuries in children involve the knee and foot.

Common knee injuries include patellar tendinitis, iliotibial band syndrome, quadriceps tendinitis and bursitis. Common foot injuries include calcaneal apophysitis, an inflammation of the heel’s growth plate, as well as Achilles tendinitis.

Take a Break

Brian Duncan, PT, DPT, director of the physical therapy residency program and human performance for the Institute, says athletes should take a season off from their chosen sport for both physical and mental rejuvenation. He recommends three months.

“The challenge is to find another sport that doesn’t use the same muscle group of your chosen sport,” says Duncan. “For swimmers, try jogging or basketball so you’re not using your shoulders.”

Additionally, Duncan suggests athletes focus on gaining strength in the off-season through weightlifting and maintaining mobility through warming up and stretching during their sport’s on-season. Of course, core-strengthening exercises are always in season.

Baseball is the only sport with playing guidelines, as established through pitch counts. As a result, parents must monitor their child’s playing time. Duncan suggests parents be mindful of decreased performance times and pain that might suggest a repetitive-use injury has occurred.