School-aged children are often encouraged to participate in sports and athletic activities. However, it’s not just for the fame of it or so parents can live vicariously through their children. In addition to promoting long-term physical, emotional and mental health, there are numerous advantages to playing sports and other recreational activities, such as:
- They teach children how to work as a team
- They give youth something fun and exciting to do in their free time
- They help children make new friends and build relationships
- They provide a sense of accomplishment
- They boost their confidence
- They build muscle and cardiac strength
Moreover, some adults would argue that keeping children involved in extracurricular activities keeps them out of mischief.
While sports and various physical activities have several positive attributes, there is a common downside — potential injuries. According to the National Safety Council, in the United States last year, children ages 5 and above sustained approximately 1.7 million sports- and recreational-related injuries.
In the past, sports were more about having fun for kids and much less competitive. These days, many kids are involved in two or more sports in a far more competitive environment. They often play during the week and on the weekends throughout the year. That puts a lot of stress on growing bones and increases the risk of fractures.
“Sports are supposed to be fun for kids and for the enjoyment of exercise,” said Tina Creekmore, M.D., a pediatric orthopedist with Pediatrix® Orthopedics of San Antonio. “Some kids do far more than their bodies can take, and that’s where you’ll really see injuries. For this reason, it’s important for parents to keep it in perspective and not push their kids beyond their physical limits.”
Common Sports Injuries in School-Aged Kids
In the United States, the most prevalent school-related sports in order of popularity are football, track and field, basketball, baseball and soccer. It stands to reason then that four of the five are accountable for the highest number of sports-related injuries in school children ages 5 and up.
In 2021, the following number of injuries were recorded by the National Safety Council in the 5 to 14 age group:
- Football — 110,171
- Basketball — 79, 207
- Soccer — 59,184
- Baseball/softball — 45,392
- Track and field — 5,638
“Injuries really spike during football season,” said Dr. Creekmore. “Football injuries range from knee sprains, including anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears and medial collateral ligament (MCL) sprains, to meniscus tears, bone fractures, muscle strains and shoulder acromioclavicular (AC) joint sprains. We also see a lot of finger, knee and ankle injuries and fractures in basketball, but probably half as many as football injuries.”
Swimming also led to a high number of injuries for kids ages 5 to 14, yielding a whopping 65,906 injuries in 2021.
There was no shortage of sports-related injuries in the 15 and up age group, with basketball in the lead:
- Basketball — 127,219
- Football — 92,802
- Soccer — 59,086
- Baseball/softball — 37,966
- Track and field — 7,048
In addition, exercise equipment caused 76,078 injuries for this age group. In fact, exercise equipment accounted for 409,224 injuries (of all ages) last year, higher than any other sport or recreational activity.
In addition to the five most popular school sports, volleyball and ice hockey were high on the list of the causes of sports-related injuries. For school ages 5 and up, 32,253 children and young adults sustained injuries while playing volleyball, and 24,332 hockey-related injuries were reported.
In addition to traumatic injuries, Dr. Creekmore also sees a lot of overuse injuries, such as shoulder impingement (swimmer’s or thrower’s shoulder), lateral epicondylitis (tennis elbow) and stress fractures, which often occur when using the same area of the body repeatedly. For example, a pitcher uses the same arm to throw countless balls throughout a baseball season. Similarly, a tennis player swings a racket numerous times during a match using the dominant arm, causing overuse of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand.
Overuse injuries also result from training errors or excessive exercise without ample rest and recovery time.
During sports, coaches often focus on strength training and not as much on stretching and other actions that can help reduce the risk of injury. There are several measures athletes can take to help prevent traumatic and overuse injuries, such as:
- Maintaining flexibility through stretching — Muscles must be warmed up through various stretching exercises before engaging in sports activities. Examples of dynamic warm-up exercises for children and adolescents are jumping jacks, arm circles, lunges and squats.
- Improving balance and stability by strengthening the core — Crunches and planks are great exercises to help kids strengthen their cores.
- Using proper technique — Understanding how to correctly play a sport not only helps your child play well but also helps prevent injuries. This includes balancing body weight so your child’s arms, back and legs aren’t overextended, using the proper equipment for your child’s size and abilities and using proper footwork to reduce risks of ankle and Achilles tendon injuries.
- Resting and recovering between sports activities — Playing for long periods without a sufficient break to allow your muscles to recover can lead to injuries.
- Maintaining a healthy weight through proper nutrition — Being underweight or malnourished, often seen in those participating in gymnastics, dance, wrestling and cheerleading, can increase the risk of injury because the body isn’t receiving the necessary nutrients to perform. On the flip side, growing kids, especially those with growth plates in their bones, are also susceptible to sustaining various injuries when they carry too much weight.
- Allowing previous injuries to heal appropriately and thoroughly — Make sure your child has been cleared by his or her doctor to continue playing sports after an injury.
“If your child continues to play before an injury has completely healed, the injury can be reaggravated, especially with overuse injuries involving tendons and ligaments,” said Dr. Creekmore. “Your child may be able to do some rehabilitation stretching and strengthening before the injury is fully healed, which is considered on a case-by-case basis.”
Sports aren’t the only activities that cause injuries. Several recreational activities landed kids, teens and adults in doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics and hospital emergency rooms last year, such as:
- Skateboards, scooters and hoverboards
- All-terrain vehicles (ATVs), mopeds and minibikes
- Playground equipment
- Roller skating
- Snow skiing and snowboarding
- Water skiing, tubing and surfing
- Snow sledding
Children Under 5 Years
Children under 5 are equally susceptible to sustaining injuries during play. Playground equipment accounted for 46,991 injuries in this age group last year. Other reasons for common activity-related injuries include:
- Trampolines — 25,171
- Swimming, pools and equipment — 19,131
- Bicycles — 12,425
- Exercise equipment — 7,246
- Skateboards, scooters and hoverboards — 6,996
Kids under five aren’t immune to sports-related injuries — from football, soccer, baseball and basketball to golf, fishing and martial arts — though the number of injuries is much lower than in the older age groups.
“Sports and recreational activities are good for supporting your child’s lifelong health,” said Dr. Creekmore. “Accidents will certainly happen but good preventive practices can help significantly reduce the risk of injury to your child.”