Ashley Rapaport was in sixth grade when she started running track. But a year later, she got hurt. "We thought she pulled something," says her mother, Eve Valdes-Rapaport.
It was worse than that. Ashley was suffering from hip-flexor displacement and severe muscle strain.
"She went through a huge growth spurt," says the Deerfield mom. "Her joints and bones did not grow at the same rate as her muscles and ligaments."
Although it took three months and physical therapy for her initial injury to heal, she’s prone to more injuries. Each time she’d get better invariably something would snap for another injury, Valdes-Rapaport says.
Now 16, Ashley still runs track, but her doctor did not give her the green light to go back to long-distance running.
Ashley’s story is not uncommon.
Being part of a sports team teaches children life skills, how to communicate with others and how to set and reach goals. But sometimes the goals are too extreme for little bodies.
Each year, about 3.5 million kids age 14 and under receive medical treatment for sports injuries. Many of these injuries are from overexertion, falls and collisions, and they often happen during unorganized or informal sports events, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization focused on preventing childhood injuries. Kids ages 5 to 14 account for about 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated at hospitals, Safe Kids reports.
"Kids play sports younger and younger," says Dr. Jeffrey Mjaanes, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and orthopedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center and a pediatric sports medicine specialist.
"The thing that’s special about kids is that they’re growing," he says.
What sport is most injury-prone?
As a parent, you might think there are a few sports your kid should avoid. But according to Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital, different sports have different risk factors for injury. For example, kids who play contact sports like football, basketball, soccer, hockey and gymnastics are at greater risk for injury because of the strain put on the body and potential collisions with other players.
The size of your child’s body is more important at younger ages than the specific sport.
"The most popular sports have the most injuries because more kids are playing them," LaBella says. "There are a lot more overuse injuries these days than ever before."
And in recent years there has been an increase in sports injuries as club sports and travel teams are becoming more popular, with kids playing the same sports year-round.
She says injuries increase as the competition increases, especially at the high school and college levels.
"If parents follow the simple rules—focusing on basics—most of these injuries can be prevented," Mjaanes says.
But monitoring your little sports player isn’t the only lesson here. When it comes to injuries, sometimes it’s best to use your instincts.
Mjaanes says that if pain is persistent or affecting play for more than two or three days, it is best to get it checked out.
Abby Upperman of Glenview was 11 when she broke her collarbone playing basketball. After six weeks of intense pain and no physical activity, she recovered, but now she is in physical therapy for tendonitis in her knee and she has a rolled ankle.
Now 13 and an avid basketball and soccer player, Abby plays on multiple teams. But her parents, Brad and Leslie, are teaching their daughter the proper precautions and techniques to combat sports-related injuries.
"We’ve learned with Abby that she has an extremely high tolerance for pain. We’ve learned to take immediate action," Brad says. "She hides it pretty well."
Leslie admits it’s not always easy to know your child’s limits. "I think one of the hardest things to say is to ‘slow down,’ " she says.
Parents and coaches need to recognize it’s the kids playing, not the adults, says LaBella, and that pushing kids too hard sometimes comes with consequences.
However, Valdes-Rapaport says the pressure to go that extra step comes from her daughter.
"Ashley pushes herself way harder than I would or my husband," she says. "Ashley loves that competitive edge. She lives, eats and breathes this.
"When all is said and done, it’s her body. She knows when to stop, and she knows when to push," says Valdes-Rapaport.
LaBella encourages parents to have their kids start any sport slowly and gradually, and she says, don’t do too much too soon.
"Let them choose instead of choosing for them," she says. "They’ll monitor themselves."
Her advice to parents is to let kids set their own goals.
"It’s become more about the parents and the adults," LaBella says. "Listen to your kid. Let them rest."
Before playing any sport, Mjaanes says parents should be sure their child is healthy overall with proper nutrition and plenty of rest. He also says kids should address all areas of fitness like flexibility and endurance, and they should try to avoid the same sport year-round—he encourages kids to "mix it up" with sports that use different muscle groups.
"The nice thing about kids is that they heal well and tend to recover quickly," he says.
It’s all about prevention
As a parent, it’s important to help fight sports injuries in your kid. Icing, heating and rest don’t always guarantee a full recovery. Fortunately, there are a few good, easy ways to prevent injuries.
Although different sports have different injuries, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, your child should always know the rules of the sport, be in proper physical condition and use proper equipment such as helmets and other safety gear. Also, be sure your child stretches or does a warm-up routine before and after playing.
These exercises can help prevent overuse injuries, which "result from repeated motion and wear and tear on joints, bones, muscles and many of the soft tissues of the body," according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
Getting a preseason sports physical is highly recommended, too, and is now required by many schools and sports programs.
It is also important to have your child drink plenty of water, especially when it’s hot or dry outside. If your kid says she’s thirsty, let her take a break. If she says she’s tired or in pain, let her stop playing for a while.
Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Children’s Memorial Hospital, says kids, especially pre-puberty age kids, should have about one to two days a week off from the sport, and about one to two months a year off from the sport.
"The body needs time to rest," LaBella says.
For more information about sports injuries in kids call the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine at (847) 292-4900 or visit www.sportsmed.org. Also, be sure to check out the prevention guide for childhood sports injuries at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Web site at www.niams.nih.gov.
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