Pain in young athletes is a common occurrence, which is often described as growing pains and can be viewed by coaches, teachers and parents as part and parcel in becoming an athlete. With children growing up in a society of sporting heroes who live celebrity lifestyles the attraction of pursuing sporting careers has never been higher and therefore so to is the risk of picking up adolescent injuries.
A major reason for these injuries is due to the structure of their growing bones compared to the structure of a fully matured adult bone. The articular surfaces and the body of the bone all respond differently to stresses and loads when compared to mature bone. Immature bones also have growth plates that are vulnerable to shear forces and can interfere with the growing process. Added to this is an imbalance between the faster growing muscle and slower growing bone that can create traction forces at muscle attachments. All these factors create injuries that are unique to younger athletes and need to be diagnosed by professionals to ensure that long-term impairments are prevented.
The prevalence of these injuries remains high even though there is good understanding of how they are caused and how to manage them. One of the reasons for this is an increased sedentary lifestyle. Children today are less likely to be walking too and from school, playing in the park or cycling to friend’s houses. Sedentary activities such as playing computer games and watching TV box sets are becoming more and more common. It can certainly be argued therefore that while participation in sports and school activities may have increased this sedentary lifestyle outside sport has lead to the kids of today having spikes in load from sedentary activities to high demand running and jumping with no in-between. This yo-yoing of activity creates the perfect environment for injury.
Luckily if these injuries are diagnosed early then their management is usually straightforward with minimal intervention needed. Reducing or in some cases stopping the sporting activity or the training load for a set period of time will generally allow for a full recovery and the sport can then be recommenced. As physiotherapists it is our job to ensure that factors such as poor training technique, biomechanical impairments, muscle weakness and unsuitable equipment are addressed. This will often involve assessment of sporting technique such as running, jumping, bowling or kicking (depending on the sport) and implementing strengthening and mobility exercises along with graded loading programs until a return to sport is achieved.
There are injuries that involve disruption to joint surfaces or growth plates, which are more serious and will result in longer periods away from sport and can even require surgical intervention. Early detection and management lead to the best results and it is therefore important for young athletes to have any pain or discomfort assessed and diagnosed. The majority of time they will be able to continue with their sport and can even come out of it stronger with less chance of future injury.
Take Home Message
Although pain in young athletes is often the result of their growing bodies being exposed to excessive loads their symptoms should not be ignored and professional assessment and management will not only be able to rule out any serious pathology but will more than likely result in them becoming a better athlete with less risk of future injury.