Overuse Injuries on the Rise in Young Athletes

Playing sports can be one of the great joys in a child’s life. As more children participate in organized sports, however, doctors are seeing an alarming increase in the number of young athletes suffering from overuse injuries.  Nearly half of all sports injuries in middle and high school students are caused by overuse.

Children and teens are at increased risk of these types of injuries because their bones are still growing, and less resilient to stress. Also, they may not understand that certain symptoms are signs of overuse, and may try to play through the pain.

These injuries can be prevented, though — with the help of informed and watchful parents and coaches.

If your young athlete has an overuse injury, it's important to see a doctor. Where you take them matters because the treatment their growing bones get today impacts their future. At Children's, we have a pediatric-trained team dedicated solely to caring for kids and teens. 

What is an Overuse Injury?

An overuse injury is damage to a bone, muscle, ligament or tendon due to repetitive stress.

These injuries occur over time, usually from repetitive training (for example, running, overhead throwing or serving a ball in tennis). Overuse injuries happen in sports ranging from football and swimming to baseball and tennis – even golf.

Some common examples of overuse injuries include:

Signs of Overuse Injury

Unlike traumatic injuries such as fractures or cuts, overuse injuries can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are subtle. 

Be on the lookout for these signs:

  • Pain that gets worse when your child is active
  • Swelling
  • Limping
  • Limited range of motion
  • Pain that continues for a while, gets worse sometimes or lasts for a week or more following injury

As parents and coaches, it’s important to be aware that overuse injuries can be just as detrimental as fractures, sprains or concussions, even though they may not seem to be at first. And if not treated, overuse injuries can gradually get worse.

If you think your child has an overuse injury, take him out of the game. Tell the coach and call your child’s doctor.

Preventing Overuse Injuries

One reason for the increase in these types of injuries is that more young children—as young as 7—are focusing on one sport year-round, which leaves young athletes vulnerable to over-training, stress and burnout. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, however, kids shouldn't be allowed to specialize in a sport until they're older than 15 or 16. 

This may be because some studies show that children develop best when playing a variety of sports before puberty. They’re also less likely to lose interest in sports and stop playing. 

Keep your child in the game by applying some of these simple prevention pointers.

Ways to keep your child injury-free

  • Schedule your child for an annual physical evaluation before participating in sports.
  • Schedule a Sports Motion Analysis session to have your child's mechanics analyzed. By using the proper technique, athletes can avoid the risk of injury and help improve performance. 
  • Encourage your child to warm up properly before an activity by stretching or engaging in low-impact exercises, like jogging in place.
  • Make sure training is increased gradually. Remember the 10 percent rule: Don’t increase training activity, weight, mileage or pace by more than 10 percent per week.
  • Have your child take at least one day off per week from organized activity. He should also take at least three months off during the year (in one-month increments) between sports.
  • Encourage your child to try a variety of sports. Young athletes who play the same sport year-round are more likely than others to experience overuse injuries.
  • Have your child wear properly fitting sports equipment and protective gear, such as running shoes and helmets.
  • Be aware that overuse injuries can occur in practice as well as during games.
  • To avoid repeat injuries, don’t let your child return to play until you know what caused an overuse injury.

This content has been clinically reviewed by Julie Johnson, PT, MPT, SCS, CSCS. Julie Johnson, PT, MPT is a clinical manager in the Sports Medicine Physical Therapy Program and is the Program Director of our Sports Residency Program at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Julie is a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy and has over 20 years experience in sports therapy. She is a member of the Pediatric Research in Sports Medicine Society, and was the recipient of the 2019 Achievement Award for Physical Therapy. She has a passion for injury prevention as well as for helping kid, teen and college-age athletes get back to their sport safety after an injury or surgery.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.