The paralysis of the Rutgers University football player last month was a sobering reminder of just how dangerous sports can be. While paralysis is a rare injury, with more and more kids signing up for sports and at younger and younger ages, are athletics all fun and games or do these young players face serious risks?
Kevin Duffus a physical therapist at Optimum Orthopedics Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Center in Montclair has definitely seen a change in childhood sports and injuries over the past 10 years.
“The ages are coming down and the injuries are increasing,” Duffus said of the patients he sees. He treats patients as young as 8-years-old and estimates about a quarter of the patients in the practice on any given day are high school age or below. At certain times during the day, like after school, that number rises to 100%.
And the types of injuries are changing, too, according to Duffus. “The injuries we are seeing are very similar to what adults get.”
The most common injuries Duffus treats are to the shoulder and the ACL (Anterior cruciate ligament), one of the major ligaments in the knee, as well as stress fractures of the spine and sprained ankles.
Duffus said often the injuries occur due to overuse syndrome, which occurs when people continually perform the same motion over and over again. In today’s sports programs Duffus noted student-athletes practice more, play on multiple teams for the same sport, and play multiple sports during a single season. He gave soccer as example, stating kids will often play soccer all year long and add other sports to that depending on the season. “When we were little we played one sport at a time,” he said.
And for girls the risks are even more significant according to Duffus. “Girls are having many more injuries.” In addition to the increase in athletic activity among girls, Duffus asserted girls’ injuries were due to a difference in the way they play sports.
The experience of Glen Ridge EMT John Dobbs differed slightly. He hasn’t witnessed more injuries over the years, but he has seen an increase in competition.
“I don’t think it’s more injuries. I think it’s a higher degree of competition,” Dobbs said of the change he’s seen in childhood sports.
He points to the breadth of opportunity kids have to enter into sports at younger ages. “It gets competitive very quick. The level of competition and coaching is something I never had at my age.”
Dobbs asserts kids’ early entry into athletics and the intensity of sports with even the youngest players can have a negative effect for certain kids. Those who haven’t been practicing since birth.
“It takes kids out of athletics fairly early,” Dobbs said of kids who haven’t been involved in sports from the get go, but become interested a few years later. “All the sudden they are playing with kids who have been playing for four years, and they are never going to catch up.” Clearly this frustrates Dobbs. “There is no reason a 10-year-old should feel like a second stringer under any circumstance.”
Both Dobbs and Duffus do agree, though, that the long-term effect of injuries on children is still a question mark.
“There is no evidence to suggest what will happen when they get older,” Dobbs said about concussions sustained by kids during sports. “From purely parental perspective that gets a little dicey for me.”
As for Duffus, he has seen ACL surgery performed on kids as young as 12, which he said “used to be unheard of.” This is done without any evidence of the impact the surgery will have on the child once he or she is grown.
He also pointed out on a number of occasions he has performed multiple knee scopes on the same patients. “It’s almost an epidemic.”
While the injuries and their implications are a cause for concern, both dufus and Dobbs believe sports can be safer if parents and coaches educate themselves about the risks.
“It’s horrible to see them all, but I’m glad to help,” said Duffus.