By Annie Finnigan
Sprains, strains, contusions, fractures, concussions -- experts say that these and other injuries are on the rise among our sports-obsessed kids. It's estimated that high school sports are responsible for 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations every year. About 3 million children under age 14 are hurt annually playing sports, a quarter of them so seriously they are sent to emergency rooms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And it's not just tough-guy games that are to blame. While football injuries have climbed 43 percent in the last decade among 7- to 18-year-olds, cheerleading -- hardly a contact sport -- is a close second, with a 38 percent increase.
What's behind the epidemic? From Little League to high school varsity teams, sports have become more organized and competitive, and the pressure to excel -- from coaches, schools, parents, and the kids themselves -- is intense. "More kids are also specializing in a single sport early on and playing it year round," says Lyle Micheli, MD, founder and director of the sports medicine division at Boston Children's Hospital. "And they're training harder than ever without giving themselves a break. Anything less, and they'll fall behind the curve." But young bodies aren't built to stand up to all that stress. "Kids are more vulnerable than adults because their muscles, bones, even their brains, are still growing and don't recover from injuries as well," explains Jason Theodosakis, MD, assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson.
Despite the alarming increase in injuries, many parents are reluctant to curb their kids' activities -- and their dreams. Charles McCall was determined to play this season because he knew college scouts would be watching, and his mom, Darcey, couldn't say no. "I told him to be careful, since another knee injury would affect him for the rest of his life," she says. "But it was his turn to shine, and I couldn't take that away from him." Still, there are steps parents can take -- including knowing which injuries are most common and how to avoid them -- to help kids play safe.