Athletes ages 5 to 18 make up 60 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in emergency rooms in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some experts believe the increasing number of sports injuries are due to youths taking part in more and more sports.
Athletes are paying for their over-enthusiasm, such as a 14-year-old patient of Dr. Kevin O'Malley of GIKK Ortho Specialists in Omaha. He was diagnosed with Osgood-Schallters, an injury that occurs in boys and girls who are vulnerable because their bones are still growing.
O'Malley said kids are playing in tournaments as well as at their high schools, increasing their chances of injury.
“That's something we didn't see 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.
More athletes ages 12 to 14 are now focusing on one sport and often playing it year-round.
“When I was in high school, kids played every sport,” O'Malley said. “Now they are specializing. I think there are multiple reasons for focusing on one sport, but for many it is the chance to obtain a college scholarship.
“The more they play and practice one sport, the chances of injury increase.”
Over the years, Dave Schultz has seen more emphasis put on sports for kids in order to develop skills and learn to set goals.
“Part of our culture is remaining active. Being out there. Having fun. Giving it up for the big game,” said Schultz, an athletic trainer with Nebraska Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine in Lincoln.
“Some kids practice and play volleyball at school, then at night go to a conditioning program with another coach,” he said. “You can't go out every day and practice and play without repercussions.”
Taking a day off during the weekend or having a lighter, less intense practice the day after a game are practical ways to recover. Allowing time to recover after a period of practices also is important, he said.
“A balance should exist that allows progressive development while reducing the number of exposures to athletic activity and minimizing injuries,” Schultz said.
The body responds to stress by becoming stronger, but if stress is too much too soon too often, the body doesn't have time to repair itself.
“If that constant buildup and breakdown is excessive, rest and recovery is very critical,” Schultz said.
Dr. Scott Haughawout is disturbed about the increasing number of young people ages 13 and older with herniated disks in their back and fractures of the spine called spondylolysis. Some patients with spondylolysis might require surgical correction if conservative measures fail.
His theory is that they don't give their bodies a chance to heal.
“They play sports year-round with an emphasis on getting scholarships via athletics,“ said Haughawout ,who is a doctor of osteopathy at the Nebraska Spine Center in Omaha.
Hannah Dunter was 13 years old when she first experienced severe pain in her lower back last fall. “It got to the point that I started crying,” she said.
A series of health professionals tried to diagnose her problem before she was referred to Haughawout. After an MRI, he determined she had four fractures in her lower back vertebrae.
She blames herself. “I pushed myself too hard. I play a lot of school sports and softball in the summer (with the Elkhorn Slammers Black team).”
Some kids are born with the fracture of the spinal vertebrae, but it also can be caused by a traumatic injury, Haughawout said. “A herniated or bulging disk causes back pain and leg pain and could lead to irreversible nerve damage.”
The healing experience is not pleasant.
“They're put in a brace for three months from chest to hip and can't bend for 24 hours a day,” Haughawout said.
Hannah had to give up sports temporarily. She's healing but is not back to playing sports or participating in physical education in school. Once the team's catcher, she now watches softball practice without playing
“Our kids played baseball through the Elkhorn Baseball Association. Some of their friends that play select games may play three times as many games and don't get a whole lot of rest,” Haughawout said. He describes select sports as advanced games and leagues formed outside schools.
“My wife and I have chosen not to have select sports, because we want them to have a chance to be a kid. We want them to be able to have time to do other things than sports,” he said. “I love sports as much as the next guy, but I don't want sports to rule my life.”
Haughawout has a warning for all young athletes: “Kids younger than 16 years old should avoid Olympic lifts, such as squats, clean and press, and lifting that places increased load on the spine. Their skeletons don't mature until at least 16, sometimes 18 or 19, and aren't mature enough to withstand the loads put on them,” he said.
Safety is just common sense, Schulz said.
“Building muscles and developing skills are integral to being successful in the sport, he said. “Just as important is rest and recovery.”