Dr. Liz Matzkin: STOP sports injuries in young athletes

Dr. Liz Matzkin

It’s springtime – and that means our athletic fields are about to be crowded once again with kids pursuing all the positive benefits of sports: exercise, teamwork, and friendly competition.

Around the country, some 30 million youngsters participate in organized sports, according to Safe Kids USA. At a time when childhood obesity is a growing epidemic, we need to see that figure increase.

But the flip side to kids’ participation in competitive sports is the danger of kids being pushed too hard, at too young an age. Little Leaguers are not mini Major Leaguers: Kids’ growing bodies need more gentle conditioning and less physical stress than those of adult athletes.

As an orthopedist specializing in sports medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, I see the increasing numbers of traumatic injuries such as ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears and overuse injuries like tendonitis in these young athletes.

Nationally, more than 3.5 million kids younger than 14 are treated each year for sports injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school athletes account for an estimated two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations every year.

That’s why the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine has launched the Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention (STOP) Campaign. As orthopedists, we know that childhood sports injuries leave kids vulnerable to more activity-based injuries as children and adults, and can contribute to long-term degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis.

We believe half of all sports injuries can be prevented. And by preventing sports injuries, kids are more likely to be active in the long run.

Here are some tips for parents, coaches and young athletes to keep in mind to avoid injury:

- Get a pre-season physical every year. A physical allows for the screening, prevention and treatment of any conditions that could affect a kid’s healthy participation in sports

- Warm up properly before an activity. Athletes should slowly increase their heart rate through a low-impact aerobic activity like jogging in place, and then stretch muscles just beyond the point of resistance for 10 to 12 seconds. Don’t bounce while stretching.

- Cool down after an activity. Athletes should allow their heart rates to decrease gradually after an activity. Stretching afterward can also help avoid injury.

- Use proper training and technique. Most overuse injuries occur because of improper training or technique.

- Increase training gradually. Do not increase training activity, weight, mileage or pace by more than 10 percent per week. This allows the body ample time to recover.

- For overweight kids, approach sports slowly. We know that lack of activity, along with poor eating habits, is contributing to the prevalence of overweight and obesity in our kids. But extra pounds can also increase the likelihood of a sports injury. Kids who are heavy and want to get involved with sports should make sure to see their doctor first to come up with a game plan to participate safely.

- Be careful of specializing too early. Playing the same sport multiple seasons in a row contributes to many of the overuse injuries that I see. Specializing at an early age is more likely to lead to injury than an athletic scholarship.

For more information, including sports-specific recommendations, visit

And most importantly, particularly for young athletes: Keep the focus on safety and fun. When kids are pushed too hard and the primary focus is on winning, injuries are more likely to occur and kids are more likely to burn out.

According to the Center for Kids FIRST, a grassroots organization devoted to keeping kids active, 70 percent of kids drop out of organized sports by age 13, with many saying they got tired of pressure from parents and coaches. Let’s keep kids in the game for life by teaching them to love sports and avoid injuries.

Liz Matzkin, MD, is an orthopedist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. She is board-certified in orthopedic surgery and an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine. She lives in Newton, Mass.