Little League is in full swing or the football field is filled. Or It's high season for basketball, soccer or tennis. At the local pool, teenagers race against the sweeping hands of a trainer's stopwatch. Organized sports may seem an ideal way to keep youngsters occupied and in shape, but in excess, they are to blame for what some experts are calling an epidemic of overuse injuries.
"These injuries have become more common in the last 10 to 15 years," says Michael Ehrlich, MD, chief of orthopedics at Rhode Island and The Miriam hospitals. "It's a result of the organized, high intensity sports for kids."
Children, says Ehrlich, are playing sports too many hours a day, too many days a week and too many months per year. "At sports camps, the kids play for eight to 10 hours a day. The development of formalized leagues has resulted in coaches making children undergo long practices. Towns of all sizes now have indoor hockey rinks where kids can play all year long."
Ehrlich explains overuse injuries by comparing a child's growing body to a tent. "You have ropes going from the canvas to a stick secured in the ground. The wind can put pressure on the canvas, which pulls on the ropes and the stick out of the ground." Growth plates at the ends of children's long bones are often weaker than the ligaments connecting bones. Stress can pull bone away from the growth plate, ripping the bone.
The stress that causes such injuries is repetition of a single motion. These only occur in organized sports, say the experts. In pick-up games, when children get tired or hurt, they stop. In organized sports, children tend to go beyond their comfort level.
As a result, orthopedists' offices are filling up with children with swimmer's shoulder, shin splints from running, vertebral cracks caused by gymnastics and Little League elbow, which Ehrlich says, is a common and permanent injury. "I've seen 14-year-old kids whose elbows look like those of a 90-year-old."
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