December 13, 2017

All around the country, youth athletes are starting to focus on one sport at younger and younger ages. Traditionally, young athletes participated in several sports, rotating between them as the seasons changed. However, as club and travel teams have gained popularity and youth sports have become more competitive, young athletes have gravitated toward choosing a sport to focus on earlier in their careers.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon has led to a dramatic rise in injuries associated with fatigue of the muscles and joints.

“We’re seeing a huge shift in the normal demographics of who has these types of problems,” said Dr. Trevor Gaskill, M.D., of the Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center. “Whereas we used to see in shoulder and elbow problems in throwers, for example, developing in late high school or college, we’re now seeing those types of injuries as early as 10 years old.”

The average age of patients who undergo an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (also known as Tommy John surgery) has dropped by nearly a decade, Gaskill said. The reason for this dramatic shift, according to Gaskill, is almost certainly earlier specialization in a single sport.

“We used to see athletes competing in three or four sports over four seasons, which gave the opportunity for muscles, ligaments, and joints to recover,” Gaskill said. “When you have a young athlete  playing only one sport year round, you don’t have that opportunity.”

Gaskill said that some joints and tendons in the human body, similar to parts in a car, are designed to hold up for a certain number of miles. Whether you hit that mileage at age 10 or age 30, he said, “that’s it.”

Baseball pitchers commonly experience injuries from overuse, but that’s not the only sport in which overuse can be a problem. Gaskill said that swimmers, soccer players, volleyball players, and football players can develop overuse injuries, and that overuse in almost any sport or activity can conceivably cause issues.

Another factor is that younger athletes tend not to have the time or know-how to condition and maintain their bodies for year-round focus on one sport.

“At the Division I college level and the professional level, athletes have much better resources and understanding of what it takes to prevent overuse injuries,” Gaskill said. “There’s a reason Major League pitchers pitch ina five to seven game rotation throughout the year, coupled with the offseason being critical.”

Dr. Gaskill strongly recommended that athletes participate in multiple sports, both to allow for built-in recovery time between seasons and to develop better-rounded athleticism, and that young athletes and their parents pay close attention to recovery time.

“All of it comes down to relative rest,” Gaskill said. “You have to have time to recover from any sporting competition. When you have fatigue, there is a  much greater  risk of injury. Sports are a great way to have fun and learn about teamwork and competition and all sorts of things, but I think we need to try to do it as safely as possible.”

For more information go to via the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.