Lower back injuries are the third most common problem suffered in athletes under age 18, new research shows. Many of those injuries are severe enough to sideline young athletes for one-to-six months, and put them at future risk for long-term back problems.
The study — presented by Loyola University Medical Center sports medicine physician Neeru Jayanthi, M.D. at a meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando — included more than 1,200 young athletes who suffered 843 injuries.
The results showed lower back injuries accounted for 127 (15.1 percent of the total), after injuries involving the knee (31.1 percent) and ankle (16 percent). Other common injuries included those involving the head (13.4 percent), shoulder (10.7 percent), and hip (6.4 percent).
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Nearly 4 in 10 back injuries were serious, including stress fractures and complications of stress fractures, that could cause lifelong back problems.
"If a young athlete has lower back pain for two weeks or longer, it is imperative that the athlete be evaluated by a sports medicine physician," Dr. Jayanthi said. "If a serious injury such as a stress fracture is not properly treated and does not heal properly, the athlete could be at risk for long-term back problems."
The study confirmed preliminary findings, reported earlier, that specializing in a single sport increases the risk of overall injury. "We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," Dr. Jayanthi said.
Jayanthi offers the following tips to reduce the risk of injuries in young athletes:
- If there's pain in a high-risk area such as the lower back, elbow or shoulder, the athlete should take one day off. If pain persists, take one week off.
- If symptoms last longer than two weeks, the athlete should be evaluated by a sports medicine physician.
- In racket sports, athletes should evaluate their form and strokes to limit extending their backs regularly by more than a small amount (20 degrees).
- Enroll in a structured injury-prevention program taught by qualified professionals.
- Do not spend more hours per week than your age playing sports. (Younger children are developmentally immature and may be less able to tolerate physical stress.)
- Do not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as you spend in gym and unorganized play.
- Do not specialize in one sport before late adolescence.
- Do not play sports competitively year round. Take a break from competition for one-to-three months each year (not necessarily consecutively).
- Take at least one day off per week from training in sports.
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