THURSDAY, Aug. 30 (HealthDay News) -- Many children today start specializing in one sport early -- playing year-round, joining competitive club or travel teams and participating in special training programs -- believing they'll put themselves on the fast track to college scholarships or maybe even a pro sports career.
But for too many of these kids, that fast track leads straight to injuries, sometimes serious ones.
Recent research suggests that as many as four in 10 emergency room visits for children between 5 and 14 years old are for sports-related injuries.
No single sport is specifically to blame for the increase in kids' sports injuries. Instead, experts suspect that choosing to play one sport all the time, or playing several sports all at once, are factors leading to what are called overuse injuries.
"Any sport can produce an overuse injury," explained Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director of the Institute for Sports Medicine at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Overuse injuries are increasing for a couple of reasons. Sports are much more competitive at an earlier age, and many children are playing one sport year-round now. They're not getting enough time off for their bodies to recover. Or, they might be playing three sports at once, and what that amounts to is that they never get a day off."
While parents may counter that they were constantly active throughout their own childhoods and didn't suffer serious injuries, LaBella pointed out that youngsters used to be the masters of their own activity.
"Kids are now subject to adult schedules and organizational formats for adult-driven sports. In the past, kids directed the activities in the backyard. Where adults provide schedule and structure, kids may be pushed beyond what they would do on their own. When they play on their own, they take breaks and moderate themselves," she said.
Dr. Michael Kelly, chairman of the department of orthopaedic surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said that while it's a lot healthier for the body to "cross train" with different sports, many kids today focus on just one sport.
"It used to be that you played football and, when that was done, you might play basketball, and then later, you might play Little League or tennis. You went from sport to sport and didn't have any sport-specific training to contribute to repetitive injuries," Kelly said.
Children are particularly susceptible to repetitive injuries, because they're still growing. Both Kelly and LaBella said children are most vulnerable to injuries in the growth-plate areas. Growth plates are soft areas of developing tissue. They're found at the end of the long bones and, because these areas are still growing, the bone isn't completely calcified in that area.
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, growth-plate injuries are fractures, and they account for 15 percent of all childhood fractures. They occur twice as often in boys as in girls, with the greatest incidence among 14- to 16-year-old boys and 11- to 13-year-old girls.
So, does that mean parents shouldn't let their children play the sports they love? Not necessarily, said Kelly. But, parents do need to be willing to be the bad guy, especially if their child gets injured.
"Kids are always going to push, and they're always going to want to play. Even when hurt, a child probably won't make the right decision," said Kelly, adding that it's up to the parent to stop the child from playing if there's an injury.
Kelly acknowledged that that can be tough, particularly with high school-aged children who may have college scholarships riding on their ability to play. "I make it clear to parents that they can keep the next six months in mind, but they need to focus on the next 70 years," he said.
LaBella said children should never play through pain. "Pain is a sign of injury, and it's a sign that you need to rest," she said. If the pain doesn't get better after a couple of days, she advised that the child should go to the doctor.
Children also shouldn't start specializing in one sport until after puberty, according to LaBella, and, ideally, they should play just one sport per season and take off a month or two completely. That doesn't mean they should take two months off from all activity, she said, just from organized sports. "Go ride a bike or play soccer in the backyard," she suggested.
To learn about preventing children's sports injuries, visit the Nemours Foundation.
SOURCES: Michael A. Kelly, M.D., chairman, department of orthopaedic surgery, Hackensack University Medical Center, N.J.; Cynthia LaBella, M.D., medical director, Institute for Sports Medicine at Children's Memorial Hospital, and assistant professor of pediatrics, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago