Youth sports injuries: What parents need to know

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September 21, 2021

Organized sports are a fun and healthy activity for children of all ages. Sports can be more than just playing: Sports encourage the development of healthy lifestyle habits, teamwork, commitment, discipline, and responsibility.

As many children and adolescents return to soccer leagues, football teams and cheerleading this fall, remember that because children’s bodies are still growing, they are at a higher risk of injuries than adults. Children’s bodies are also incredibly resilient and with proper care, they can usually recover quickly.

As a pediatrician, I treat a lot of common sports-related injuries. Here is information about what I see, as well as prevention tips to keep young athletes safe and healthy.

Common sports injuries

Sprains and strains

I see lots of wrist and ankle strains and sprains every year. They are the most common injury in any sport. Sprains and strains involve the stretching or tearing of muscle tissue or ligaments and can cause swelling, bruising and limited range of motion at the site of the injury. See a medical professional if you believe your child suffered a sprain or strain.

A pediatrician can determine the severity of the sprain or strain and recommend proper treatment for mild, moderate or severe injuries. Rest, ice, compression, elevation (think of the acronym RICE) and pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve symptoms and speed up recovery.

Joint effusions

A joint effusion is a condition where excess fluid pools around a joint. Joint effusions typically occur around the knee, but can also occur around the shoulder, elbow or ankle.

The excess fluid causes swelling, pain and limited range of motion. Joint effusions typically occur after blunt force trauma to a joint but can also happen as a result of repetitive stress from doing the same motion on a frequent basis.

A pediatrician will likely conduct a physical examination and imaging tests to determine the severity of the injury. Athletes should rest, ice the joint and take an anti-inflammatory (like NSAID or naproxen) to reduce swelling.

Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries are very common in young athletes. They are prone to overuse injuries due to stress placed on growing bones. I commonly see irritation of growth plates (apophysitis), problems with tendons, stress fractures and knee pain.

If your child plays multiple sports, be sure to talk with your child about any aches and pain that may be bothering them. This may be an early indication of overuse injuries.


Concussions are traumatic brain injuries that occur when a person suffers a blow to the head that shakes the brain within the skull. Think of your brain like a person riding in a car: If the car stops suddenly, the person in the car is shaken around. The same thing happens to your brain when you are hit in the head.

Unfortunately, concussions are all too common among youth athletes. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 283,000 children seek care in U.S. emergency departments each year for sports-related brain injuries. Contact sports like football, basketball and soccer account for approximately 45% of these visits.

Like other injuries, concussions range in severity. If you believe your child suffered a concussion, call the advice line immediately.

Common symptoms of concussions include:

  • Headache
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue or drowsiness
  • Blurry vision
  • Confusion or feeling like you’re in a “fog”
  • Temporary loss of consciousness (doesn’t always occur)
  • Slurred speech
  • Forgetfulness, specifically asking the same question multiple times. In recent years, sports-related concussions have made headlines with reports about the consequences of returning to play too soon, as well as research findings into the long-term effects of the injury.

Athletes who sustain multiple concussions are at a higher risk of long-term brain damage. Once a child has been diagnosed with a sports-related concussion, they must follow strict return-to-play protocols and receive an all-clear from a pediatrician before participating in their sport again.

Most concussions will get better on their own after plenty of rest. A person with a concussion should limit screen time, drink plenty of fluids and avoid unnecessary movement of the head and neck.

Wearing sport-appropriate safety headgear and safety equipment is the best way to prevent a concussion.

Sports injury prevention tips

Fortunately, many injuries can be prevented. The best way to prevent injuries in young athletes is to have regular conversations with them. Ask them if their body is hurting and take action if they say it is.

Rest is essential for growing bodies. If your child is acting more irritable than normal, this may also be a sign that they need some time off from the sport.

It’s essential for children to be eating, drinking and sleeping the proper amount. This is especially important for children playing sports.

Just like we tune an instrument for it to perform at its best, young athletes should tune their body for it to perform at its best. Strength training and stretching are two ways to prepare the body for performance and prevent injuries. If done correctly, strength training can improve an athlete’s joint mobility, core strength and coordination, among other benefits. Young athletes are typically exposed to strength training when they enter high school. Strength training can be safely done before age 12 as long as the child can follow directions, practice proper form, and proper technique. All training sessions should be supervised by a coach or trainer. Proper stretching should occur before and after any physical activity.

All athletes must be fitted with the proper safety equipment. For football, that should include a helmet, shoulder pads, gloves, cleats, and thigh and knee pads and a mouthguard. For soccer, athletes should wear shin guards and cleats, and baseball and softball players should wear a hard-shell helmet while up to bat. Open a dialogue with your child’s coach to ensure all athletes are equipped with proper safety equipment and check that coaches are implementing injury prevention strategies.

Sports safety during the pandemic

We must remember the pandemic is not over. COVID-19 variants are spreading, and it’s important to protect your children from the virus. If your child is 12 or older, please get them vaccinated against COVID-19. It is the most effective way to protect your child, teammates and your community.

If your child is participating in an indoor sport without a mask, they are at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. If your child is playing an outdoor sport in a large group without masks, they are also at elevated risk. Please keep that in mind this sports season.

In addition to our normal sports-safety protocols, please keep COVID-19 safety protocols in mind, too. Social distancing, masking wearing, and handwashing are still critically important. Remember, we are in this together.

To all the young athletes and parents, have a safe and healthy sports season and remember to have fun!

About the author

Adrienne Collier, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Largo Medical Center.