April is National Youth Sports Safety Month… Why is that even necessary? We can all imagine and likely have been touched by generational issues such as breast cancer and autism and these topics definitely warrant our attention but youth sports safety? Did you even realize that a potential problem is percolating in this segment of our society? Consider the following:
According to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Over a ten-year period, researchers found a 400 percent increase in school-age knee injuries, including tears in the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, which helps hold the knee together) and the meniscus (the cartilage in the knee). “Today's kids are playing sports earlier and also concentrating on a single sport in some cases,” says Joel Brenner, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. This puts added stress on immature bones, joints, and muscles. Plus, the need to surgically repair some of these injuries may lead to arthritis in the future and could disturb a child's growth. “Tendinitis and stress fractures are also rising,” notes Dr. Brenner. 
An estimated thirty million American children participate in youth sports. Rising participation has lead to a dramatic increase in youth sports injuries. But according to the Centers for Disease Control more than half of all sports injuries in kids are preventable.
"Nearly half of all sports injuries to middle and high school students are linked to overuse," says James P. Sostak - a sports medicine surgeon. “If nearly half of all injuries are the result of overuse, and more than half are avoidable, doesn't it make sense to do everything we can to protect our children from unnecessary injury?" 
Dr. James Andrews the preeminent sports medicine surgeon in the country felt compelled to write a book, and then talk about it, out of fear for the younger generation. "Any Given Monday: Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them, for Athletes, Parents and Coaches -- Based on My Life in Sports Medicine." 
How about this statistic from the book:
Every year more than 3.5 million children under the age of 14 will require medical treatment for sports-related injuries, the majority of which are avoidable through proper training and awareness.
"I started seeing a sharp increase in youth sports injuries, particularly baseball, beginning around 2000," said Andrews. "I started tracking and researching, and what we've seen is a five- to sevenfold increase in injury rates in youth sports across the board. I'm trying to help these kids, given the epidemic of injuries that we're seeing. I hate to see the kids that we used to not see get hurt. ... Now they're coming in with adult, mature-type sports injuries. It's a real mess. Maybe this book will help make a dent."
According to Andrews two key reasons stand out: specialization and what he calls professionalism.
Specialization leads to playing the sport year-round. That means not only an increase in risk factors for traumatic injuries but also a sky-high increase in overuse injuries.
Professionalism is taking these kids at a young age and trying to work them as if they are pro athletes, in terms of training and year-round activity. Some can do it, like Tiger Woods. He was treated like a professional golfer when he was 4, 5, and 6 years old. But you've got to realize that Tiger Woods is a special case. A lot of these kids don't have the ability to withstand that type of training and that type of parental/coach pressure.
Now parents are hiring ex-pro baseball players as hitting and pitching instructors when their kid is 12. They're thinking, 'What's more is better,' and they're ending up getting the kids hurt.
Andrews offers up these guidelines for parents and coaches:
The first thing I would tell them is, their kid needs at least two months off each year to recover from a specific sport, preferably, three to four months. Example: youth baseball. For at least two months, preferably three to four months, they don't need to do any kind of overhead throwing, any kind of overhead sport, and let the body recover in order to avoid overuse situations. That's why we're seeing so many Tommy John procedures, which is an adult operation designed for professionals. In my practice now, 30 to 40 percent of the ones I'm doing are on high school athletes, even down to ages 12 or 13. They're already coming in with torn ligaments.
Give them time off to recover. Please. Give them time to recover.
I said in the book, I want parents and coaches to realize the implications of putting a 12- or 13-year-old through the type of athletic work done by a 25-year-old. Parents and coaches, though they mean well, need to understand what the long-term effects of overuse can be.
The youth sport culture, particularly travel and club teams, have become an important financial resource for the people who run them. Parents spend a fortune keeping their kids in a year-round sport, with travel and everything else. The tail is wagging the dog. The sport organizations are calling the shots: If your son or daughter doesn't play my sport year-round, he or she can't play for me. Never mind that your kid is 12 -- I need year-round dedication. 
Parents need to understand that we've got to correct the system. Unfortunately, it's easier said than done. It's a big problem. And it becomes a socioeconomic problem if they keep getting hurt in high school. These surgeries are often very expensive. A typical ACL knee surgery costs $25,000 in treatment and side lines athletes for anywhere from six to 12 months. Having an ACL injury also comes with a far steeper price because nearly 70 percent of all ACL injuries will lead to early onset of osteoarthritis-a form of degenerative arthritis that can worsen over time. 
Tips for keeping your young athlete safe:
1A. Assessment or sport physical– A pre-participation physical evaluation ensures that kids are ready for play.
2. Use smarter warm-ups and cool downs as part of your child's routine before and after sports participation.
3. Be an athlete first. Avoid practices that focus exclusively on sport specific drills and techniques! General athletic development should be a part of team sports practices. And the younger the child the bigger role it should play.
4. Make sure your child stays properly hydrated. Cold water is the best option only use a sports drink like Gatorade in extremely hot, humid conditions and for vigorous activity lasting more than one hour.
5. Learn and follow safety rules and specifications for each sport. In baseball they make batting helmets for a reason, use one. Also consider a mouth guard and protective eyewear in all sport where possibility of collision exists (which is most team sports).
6. Avoid Overplay – Overuse injuries can result in lost participation time, physician visits, and lengthy rehabilitation.
7. Take a Break – Limit sports to twenty hours each week with one or two days off from competitions, practices, and training. And if it hurts, stop.
You may have noticed I started this list with 1A. That’s because in my professional opinion I consider the next tip to be just as important as any other in the prevention of youth sports injuries.
1B. Play a variety of sports and activities! Month after month of the same kind of physical activity is too much for a young body. Play basketball one season, soccer or tennis another. EACH SPORT TEACHES DIFFERENT SKILLS, so your child will become a better athlete overall.
The best defense you can provide your child against injuries is to encourage them to become a well-rounded athlete and with that foundation in place they will be more durable and resilient to injury.
Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist