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Specialization in Youth Sports: Orthopedic Risks

The level of competition in youth sports is at an all time high. If you have a child participating in a competitive sport, you know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in the race to be the best. From private lessons, to early morning practices, it seems that everyone is trying to get a leg up. However, specialization in a single sport can easily backfire and the risks often outweigh the benefits.

If your child is passionate about one particular sport, it is tempting to have them focus all of their time and energy into being the best they can be. Taking those extra practices, working with a private instructor, and playing on multiple teams can seem like the only way to reach the pinnacle of performance. But there are definitely risks involved in channeling all energy and focus into one sport. Specialization in one sport at an early age can have serious short-term and long-term consequences.

Physically, there are a number of orthopedic risks for players specializing in a single sport too soon. The biggest issue for youth athletes is overuse injuries. Overuse injuries develop with repetitive motions such as throwing, jumping, swinging, running, etc. When young, developing bodies do not get a needed break from these movements, orthopedic issues can easily arise.

Common Overuse Injuries in Youth Athletes

  • Tennis elbow
  • Shin splints
  • Achilles tendon rupture
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Golfer’s elbow
  • Stress fractures
  • Tendonitis
  • Patellar tendonitis (jumper’s knee)
  • Overuse of the medial epicondyle apophysis (Little league elbow)
  •  Overuse of the proximal humeral physis (Little league shoulder)
  • Runner’s knee

Beyond the orthopedic risks, early specialization in sports can limit overall performance and skill development. Participating in other sports can help athletes improve a variety of skill sets, potentially improving performance in their favorite sports. Taking a break in the off season can help avoid burnout but can also allow youth athletes to strengthen certain techniques while exploring other sports.

Summer can be a great time to take a break and to explore a variety of sports. Time off from school provides flexibility in scheduling. Now is the time to have your son or daughter try something like new like baseball, swimming, field hockey, track and field, volleyball, biking, etc. Unstructured play is also a great way to stay active while resting the body in between seasons.

If you do feel that your child is suffering from an overuse injury, be sure to see an orthopedic surgeon for a complete evaluation. Catching these injuries early can significantly impact recovery time.

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