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Rise in Athletic Injuries Attributed to Early Specialization

In the Huffington Post, DiscMD’s own Dr. Joseph Horrigan recently examined the issue of early sports specialization and the deleterious impact such a practice could have on children.  Now, nearly a month later, a new article also takes a look at the issue, and it’s important to examine anew as more and more kids are being asked to focus on one individual sport before they might be ready for such a commitment.

Many people might wonder what the problem is with having a child who’s good, possibly very good, at one sport dedicate themselves to only that activity.  As the Director of the Sports Medicine Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Columbia University explains, children who play only one sport are placing more stress on specific muscles and bones than they otherwise would if they played different sports.  When a child goes from playing baseball to competitive swimming, for instance, they get the chance to exercise different muscles while the muscles put to the test during the swing of a bat get a chance to rest.

The change is most obvious when you look at injury rates from today versus those from barely more than a decade ago, when specialization really began in earnest.  When only taking softball and baseball into account, there are five times more elbow or shoulder injuries now than there used to be.  Anecdotal evidence from those interviewed at the above link suggests that athletics-based injuries among the under-14 set used to be a rarity but have become increasingly, alarmingly common since 2000.

One problem is that children are being tasked with meeting exacting standards that even professionals don’t endure.  A pro football or baseball player certainly works hard at their game, but they can focus on recovery for months during the off-season.  For many modern youth sports, it’s possible to join multiple leagues so that the sport can be played year-round.  There’s no break, no time for relaxation and recovery.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that children’s bodies are still in a developmental phase.  When one activity is repeated again and again, a child’s body isn’t given the opportunity to achieve a certain balance.  And when kids are placed in a competitive environment, they might do all that they can to push through and hide the pain from their coach and teammates, which could potentially make injuries worse.

Concerned about this very issue, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine established the STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) campaign back in 2007.  The website of that organization outlines the risks further, illuminating visitors to the fact that 3.5 million kids below the age of 14 suffer a sports injury requiring treatment every year.  The CDC says that, of those five million under 18 who are injured, 50% of kids can attribute their injuries to overuse.


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