MAYWOOD, Il. - Young athletes who specialize in one sport and train intensively have a significantly higher risk of stress fractures and other severe overuse injuries, even when compared with other injured athletes, according to the largest clinical study of its kind.
For example, young athletes who spent more hours per week than their age playing one sport – such as a 12-year-old who plays tennis 13 or more hours a week – were 70 percent more likely to experience serious overuse injuries than other injuries.
Loyola University Medical Center sports medicine physician Dr. Neeru Jayanthi presented findings during an oral podium research session April 19 at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) meeting in San Diego. The study is titled "Risks of Specialized Training and Growth in Young Athletes: A Prospective Clinical Cohort Study."
"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," Jayanthi said. "Among the recommendations we can make, based on our findings, is that young athletes should not spend more hours per week in organized sports than their ages."
Between 2010 and 20103, Jayanthi and colleagues at Loyola and Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago enrolled 1,206 athletes ages 8 to 18 between who had come in for sports physicals or treatment for injuries. Researchers are following each athlete for up to three years.
There were 859 total injuries, including 564 overuse injuries, in cases in which the clinical diagnosis was recorded. The overuse injuries included 139 serious injuries such as stress fractures in the back or limbs, elbow ligament injuries and osteochondral injuries (injuries to cartilage and underlying bone). Such serious injuries can force young athletes to the sidelines for one to six months or longer.
The study confirmed preliminary findings, reported earlier, that specializing in a single sport increases the risk of overall injury, even when controlling for an athlete's age and hours per week of sports activity.
Among the study's other findings:
Jayanthi offers the following tips to reduce the risk of injuries in young adults:
Jayanthi and colleagues at Loyola and Lurie Children's Hospital are planning a follow-up study to determine whether counseling recommendations on proper sports training can reduce the risk of overuse injuries in young athletes. The study is called TRACK – Training, Risk Assessment and Counseling in Kids.
"We will be testing our hypothesis that many of these serious injuries are potentially preventable," Jayanthi said.
The current study was funded by two research grants from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Jayanthi is a member of an AMSSM committee that is writing guidelines on preventing and treating overuse injuries in young athletes.
Jayanthi is Medical Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at Loyola. He is an associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Orthopaedic Surgery & Rehabilitation at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Co-authors of the study Lara Dugas, PhD, of Loyola's Department of Public Health Sciences and Cynthia LaBella, MD, and Brittany Patrick of Lurie Children's hospital. Loyola medical students and research assistants who assisted in the study are Dan Fisher, Courtney Pinkham, Erin Feller and Peter Linn.
The study was originally supported by Stritch School of Medicine's Student Training in Approaches to Research (STAR) program.
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