Fewer high school athletes are getting hurt playing sports, but those who do are more likely to suffer severe injuries that require surgery or a timeout from their chosen sport, new research shows.
Which teens are most at risk? Those who participate in football, girls’ soccer and boys’ wrestling, the study authors found. Knee and ankle sprains and strains, along with head injuries such as concussions, were the most common injuries seen.
Exactly why injuries are becoming more severe isn’t fully understood, but having kids specialize in sports too early may play a role. That can lead to an increase in overuse injuries, overtraining and burnout, said study co-author Jordan Pizzarro, a medical student at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Washington, D.C.
Still, the new data isn’t a reason for kids to stop playing sports.
“Sports build endurance and stamina and help with growth and maturity,” Pizzarro said. Instead, parents should talk to the school or coach about pre-season training programs that may help stave off injuries among young athletes.
For the study, the researchers tapped into 2015 to 2019 injury data from 100 high schools. These schools have athletic trainers who report injuries for five boys’ and four girls’ sports.
Overall, there were 15,531 injuries that occurred during 6.8 million athletic exposures. (An athletic exposure is defined as one athlete participating in one practice or competition during which an injury could potentially occur.) This equals an overall rate of nearly 2.3 injuries per 1,000 athletic exposures, which can be extrapolated to 5.2 million sports-related injuries among high schoolers nationally.
Most injuries took place during games. Overall, the injury rate was higher in boys’ sports compared to girls’ sports, and 3.5% of all injuries were fractures, and these mainly occurred in boys’ baseball, basketball and football. Overall, just over 6% of injuries — most often from wrestling, girls’ basketball and boys’ baseball — required surgery.
In total, 39% of sports injuries resulted in athletes taking less than one week off from their sport, while 34% of injuries required taking up to three weeks off to heal. Seven percent of injuries required athletes to take more than three weeks off to heal, and nearly 21% of injuries led to medical disqualification for the season or career.
The new research was presented at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) annual meeting March 7 to 11. Research presented at medical conferences should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
“The majority of high school sports are recreational, so the players may be under-conditioned and not prepared for the grinds of organized sports, making them more prone to muscle strains and other soft tissue injuries,” said Sean Tabaie, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C..
His advice? “Start early and introduce kids to a lot of different sports. Rotating the sports that kids play throughout the seasons is really important. Don’t focus on one sport, as that will leave you prone to overuse of specific muscles,” Tabaie said.