Surprising Risks of Common High School Sports
Plus tips for keeping your young athlete safer
Sports offer high school kids many wonderful benefits, from exercise to camaraderie to the opportunity to practice problem-solving skills. But of course no sport is completely safe. Concussions are all too common among football players and cheerleaders, runners can get shin splits, volleyball players can dislocate their fingers and soccer players can suffer from ACL tears.
You may already know the big risks. But here are a few lesser-known dangers of common high school sports to watch out for if you're a soccer mom or other sports parent.
Football: heat exhaustion
Kids are at risk of overheating during any sport that’s practiced or played outdoors, especially in warm weather. The danger is higher for football players because of the heavy gear they wear and the fact that practice often starts before summer’s over.
Prevention smarts: Remind your player to take breaks and drink fluids often during practice and games. “He shouldn’t wait until he’s thirsty to drink,” says Larry Cooper, chair of the National Athletic Trainers Association’s Secondary School Committee and head athletic trainer at the Penn Trafford High School in Harrison City, Pennsylvania. “At that point, the gas tank is already at a deficit.” Young players also should learn the signs of heat exhaustion: excessive sweating, racing pulse, sudden fatigue or weakness, muscle cramps, nausea and goose bumps. If a kid experiences any of these, he could be on the way to heat stroke and should let his coach know how he’s feeling right away.
Wrestling: ringworm and other skin infections
Wrestlers, who roll around on potentially germ-laden mats and also have a lot of skin-to-skin contact, are more prone to developing skin infections than other athletes. In a national survey of high school athletes, nearly three-quarters of skin infections were reported by wrestlers. “We’re seeing a lot more ringworm, a lot more impetigo,” Cooper says. He attributes this rash of rashes to decreased personal hygiene, not just among wrestlers but among all athletes who share equipment. Herpes and MRSA, a dangerous type of staph infection, also can result from skin-to-skin contact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Prevention smarts: Make sure your kid showers after practice or at least washes his hands and face with soap and puts on clean clothes. Do your part by regularly washing and disinfecting clothing, equipment and gear, including gym bags. Between trips to the laundry room, it may help to use anti-bacterial wipes or Lysol spray, says Cooper.
Baseball and softball: shoulder and elbow injury
Repetitive throwing can wreak havoc on the joints and ligaments in the shoulder, especially the rotator cuff, and elbow. “We’re seeing an increase in overuse injuries now that kids are specializing,” Cooper says. “You just shouldn’t throw a ball twelve months out of the year.”
Prevention smarts: The only way to truly reduce the risk of overuse injuries is to take time off. That might mean plotting out your student athlete’s year based on which team he or she deems most important. Even better: Encourage your kid to switch sports each season. “By practicing different sports, kids develop different parts of their athleticism and overall coordination and use different parts of their bodies,” says Michael Domer, MD, team physician for Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix, Arizona. “This allows overworked areas to heal.”
Track and cross country: lower-leg injuries
Kids who participate in running sports are prone to a long list of knee-down injuries: patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee), patellar tendonitis (jumper’s knee), medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints), Achilles tendonitis (pain from the heel into the calf) and plantar fasciitis (heel pain).
Prevention smarts: Unless your track star runs year-around, she should ease in to training at the beginning of each season. Ideally that means building up mileage in increments of no more than 10 percent each week. On the other hand, a kid who participates in all three track seasons should taper down or take time off to let the body rest. “Warming up, stretching and strengthening the calf muscles can help prevent micro-tears and more serious injury later,” Domer says. Also essential are proper shoes, fitted at a shop that specializes in running. When running laps on a track, Cooper advises switching direction periodically, since running in the same direction around the curve can cause muscle imbalances that lead to injury.
Related: Winter Running Safety
Soccer: ankle injury
It's not only the knees that take a pounding in soccer. (Knee injuries, especially ACL tears in women, are common among soccer players.) The feet take a pounding, too, and ankle sprains and other injuries are not uncommon.
Prevention smarts: The right footwear is key to prevention. Cleats that are too long won’t penetrate turf surfaces, putting a kid on uneven footing.The fit and support of soccer shoes matter as well. “Parents tend to buy cleats big and kids wear them for two to three years,” Cooper says. “Any support in the shoe is gone and they’re now too small.” It’s better to spend money on good shoes in the right size, says Cooper, than wind up with pricey medical bills and a benched kid.
Gymnastics: numb wrists
These joints take on a ton of impact. To cushion the blows, they may form small benign cysts called ganglions. Ganglions most often develop on joints around ligaments and tendons, commonly in the hands and wrists, but also in the ankles. “They may sound intimidating, but ganglions rarely are painful,” says Domer. “However, they can cause numbness, tingling or slight pain if they’re pressing against nerves in the area.”
Prevention smarts: As with any overuse injury, frequent breaks from training may be the only way to stave off ganglion formation. “If a gymnast starts having symptoms, she should be seen by an orthopedic specialist who can remove the cysts if necessary.”
Related: Is Your Young Gymnast Overtraining?
Swimming: bursitis and other shoulder problems
“Certain strokes, like the butterfly, are not natural shoulder movements and can cause lax joints, instability, dislocation and pain,” Domer says. Shoulder bursitis, which also is common in tennis players, occurs when the bursae, small fluid-filled sacs that cushion and lubricate the joints, become irritated and inflamed.
Prevention smarts: Before diving in, it’s essential swimmers warm up and stretch the shoulders so they move freely. If a swimmer develops pain or tenderness in the shoulder joint, the area should be iced right away, says Domer.
Playing it safer
Both players and coaches can take steps to keep kids safer on the court or field or in the pool. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), coaches should be knowledgeable about first aid and be able to administer it for minor injuries. Players should make sure their symptoms are totally gone before returning to play.
Since overuse injuries account for many of the problems young athletes suffer, the AAOS advises parents to:
- Limit the number of teams in which your child is playing in one season. Kids who play on more than one team are especially at risk for overuse injuries.
- Do not allow your child to play one sport year round — taking regular breaks and playing other sports is essential to skill development and injury prevention.
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