According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 30 million children and adolescents participate in youth sports in the United States each year. As a result, sports injuries are at an all-time high. High school athletes alone accounted for 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations. More than 3.5 million kids under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries. Children ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals. Injuries associated with organized sports and recreation account for 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries (TBI), causing health care professionals to partner with parents and other stakeholders to raise public awareness and develop strategies to keep kids safe.
No doubt physical fitness and recreation are good for kids. But, injuries shouldn’t be part of the youth sports equation. Unfortunately, knee, back, head, arm and leg, and other injuries are far too common in youth sports today. Hopefully, strong advocacy combined with public awareness will stem the tide of youth sports injuries.
Most Dangerous Sports for Kids Today
Youth sports like football, wrestling, and ice hockey were long considered by doctors and other health care professionals as among the most rough and tumble and dangerous sports for kids. Over the years, football programs, in particular, have caused untold number of back, neck, head, and other serious injuries to young athletes. As a result, schools dropped some of these traditional sports programs and parents encouraged their young athletes to pursue “safe” sports like Little League Baseball, soccer and tennis.
Despite a wide range of other athletic options for young people today, a new concern has arisen for young athletes. The number of injuries from kids and adolescents playing sports longer and harder than ever before has resulted in the development of “overuse injuries,” that is repetitive actions that put too much stress on young bones and muscles. Knee and joint injuries in soccer and lacrosse players, shoulder injuries in competitive swimmers, spondylolysis in young athletes engaged in competitive weight lifting, gymnastics, wrestling, and diving – these and other examples demonstrate the rising tide of overuse or stress injuries in youth sports. An 2009 article in Sports Illustrated gave a chilling account of what young athletes endure when they push themselves too hard.
Few youth sports and activities are immune from injury, according to experts from CDC and youth sports organizations. Cheerleading accounts for significant injury rates among teens and ‘tweens due to high flying stunts and increasing athleticism within cheerleading. Basketball sees its fair share of sports injuries each year among kids and adolescents. Even baseball and softball players have suffered broken legs or ankles from sliding into immobile bases and encountered other injuries. Youth soccer has been plagued in recent years by unsafe goals that fall and injure athletes when not properly secured. Fortunately, the Anchored for Safety program is raising awareness and keeping young soccer players safe and protected from harm.
The landscape for youth sports has certainly expanded and other sports pose dangers and hazards to young people. As kids and adolescents get involved in new and popular sports, including extreme sports and recreation, injury rates have been going up. In reality, there’s no such thing as “safe” youth sports if young athletes and their coaches do not take adequate steps to ensure the safety of the young athlete and team.
Public Awareness Campaigns to Stop Youth Sports Injuries
According to CDC, more than half of all sports injuries in children are preventable. To raise awareness on how to prevent head injuries in young athletes, CDC launched its Heads Up: Concussions in Youth Sports which includes fact sheets and other resources on how to prevent head trauma in young athletes.
Other campaigns to keep kids safe on the courts, track and playing fields? The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine launched its STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) Sports Injuries campaign, in partnership with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Athletic Trainers’ Association, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and SAFE Kids USA.
Likewise, the American Academy of Physicians (AAP) advocates for proper equipment and safety gear that’s sized appropriately for youth athletes. Kids are encouraged to wear helmets for baseball, softball, bicycle, skateboard and scooter riding, ice hockey and inline skating. Goggles and protective eyewear, like shatterproof goggles, are recommended for racquet sports and basketball. Finally, kids and families are encouraged to discuss appropriate protective gear for youth athletes, like helmets, shoes, mouth guards, athletic cups and supporters, and padding, with school coaches and coach volunteers, many of whom assume parents and loved ones know what’s expected of each sport.
The National Youth Sports Safety Foundation designated April as National Youth Sports Safety Month to advance youth sports safety and health. More than sixty national medical and sports organizations support National Youth Sports Safety Month, including the American College of Sports Medicine, President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, United States Olympic Committee, among other influential sports organizations.
Even the US Consumer Product Safety Commission has taken the lead on educating young people on important issues like bike and playground safety. The National Institutes of Health advocates for sports safety and reduction of overuse injuries, encouraging young athletes to be proactive in the following ways:
Get an annual physical in advance of playing an organized sport
Get the right shoes, gear and equipment
Drink lots of water
Warm up and stretch in advance of playing sports
The American Medical Association has advocated for protective equipment for youth baseball and softball, and written emergency and first responder plans for organized sports of all kinds.
It Takes a Village to Prevent Youth Sports Injuries
Parents, coaches, school administrators and young athletes themselves have become more aware of the importance of healthy and safe pursuit of sports and recreation. Increasing numbers of advisories and websites are devoted to preventing injuries in young athletes and educating the public on protective equipment and sports gear. Things must change to reduce youth sports injuries and things are changing, thanks to involved young athletes, parents, families, school administrators, coaches, health care professionals and concerned sports organizations.
Safe Kids USA Campaign
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
National Youth Sports Safety Foundation
JS Powell, KD Barber Foss, 1999. Injury patterns in selected high school sports: a review of the 1995-1997 seasons. J Athl Train. 34: 277-84.
Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids
By Mark Hyman, reprinted in Sports Illustrated (2009)
National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
Surgeons’ Group Weighs In on Football Injury Prevention
By Robert Preidt in Medline Plus (August 6, 2010)