Common Questions about Pediatric Sports Injuries

Medically reviewed by Dr. Rebecca Carl and Dr. Brooke Pfister  

Lurie Children’s pediatric orthopedic and sports medicine specialists offer age-appropriate care to children and teens who sustain injuries or conditions by participating in sports and recreational activities. Some sports-related injuries are unique to young athletes whose bodies are still growing, emphasizing the importance of being seen by a sports medicine specialist with training in pediatrics.  

Below, Lurie Children’s sports medicine team members answer some common questions about sports injuries in kids.  

What are the most common sports injuries in children?  

Some common sports injuries in children include: 

  • Apophysitis, or irritation of a minor growth plate. This typically occurs in the feet, around the knee and around the hip. Children can also have growth plate irritation or overuse injuries around the shoulder and elbow. 
  • Sprains/strains. Ankle sprains are especially common. 
  • Concussions.  
  • Fractures. Upper extremity fractures, especially the forearm, are the most common fractures seen in the Lurie Children’s Fracture Clinic 

In general, most sports injuries can be classified as acute (such as a broken bone or ankle sprain) or chronic, due to overuse (such as apophysitis). It is best to see a pediatric sports medicine specialist to determine the most accurate diagnosis. 

How can I prevent sports injuries in my child? 

Some activities that may help prevent sports injuries in children include:  

  • Warm up! Just 10 minutes of an active warm-up activity (jogging, high knees, carioca, skipping, etc.) increases circulation to muscles and makes them less prone to injury.  
  • Rest. Allow an appropriate amount of time for rest and recovery between workouts. Schedule at least one or two days off each week. Also, consider time off from organized sports activity each year.  
  • Play a variety of sports. Encouraging involvement in multiple sports and delaying specialization in one sport may help prevent injury and burnout in young athletes.   
  • Stay hydrated. Don’t forget to stay hydrated in hot and cold weather.  Water should be the first choice for hydration for most exercise/sports programs, and children and adolescents should have frequent breaks during sports to allow for adequate hydration.  
  • Respond promptly to injuries. Don’t play through pain. Pain can be a sign of injury, stress or overuse. If the pain does not go away after one or two days of rest, consult a physician, especially consider a pediatric sports medicine specialist. Joint swelling, bone/joint that appears out of place, limited motion of a joint, limp and inability to bear weight are all concerning and should prompt evaluation.  
  • Get a sports physical. Find a pediatrician or pediatric sports medicine physician who can help assess readiness for sports, address any medical issues that may cause risk of injury and offer recommendations to ensure safe sports participation. 

What are the signs and symptoms of a sports injury? 

Signs of a sports injury may include the following:  

  • Sudden pain 
  • Bone or joint that appears out of place 
  • Weakness in area of injury 
  • Not being able to move a joint 
  • Not being able to place weight on leg/knee/ankle/foot 
  • Headache 

Should I seek medical attention for my child's sports injury? 

For any of the following serious symptoms, you should seek an evaluation from a pediatric orthopedic/sports medicine specialist:  

  • Pain that doesn’t go away after 2-3 days 
  • Severe pain 
  • Obviously swollen joint 
  • Limp 
  • Suspected concussion 

When a child is unable to walk on their own or their bone/joint appears out of place, you should seek a more immediate evaluation in an urgent care or pediatric emergency department setting. 

How can I properly care for my child's sports injury at home? 

In general, we talk about RICE therapy for acute sports injury. RICE is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. These interventions are focused on helping with pain and minimizing swelling immediately following an injury. 

The injured area should be rested and not overworked. Ice, as opposed to heat, is the first choice for nearly all acute injuries, although heat may be appropriate for muscle spasm/back pain. Compressing an injury, such as with an elastic bandage or wrap, and elevating an injured body part, can help decrease swelling of an area. 

Some injuries will be best treated by keeping them immobilized, such as fractures. However, other injuries, such as ankle sprains, may improve faster by doing a guided range of motion exercises early on. A pediatric sports medicine provider is best suited to determine next steps with a patient and their family following an injury. 

Meanwhile, if a concussion is suspected, a medical provider should be contacted right away to help determine any necessary treatment. The general rule with a concussion is relative rest – avoiding or taking frequent breaks during activities that may worsen symptoms (ex. loud environments, screen time) and avoiding any vigorous exercise or contact sports until cleared by a medical provider. 

When is it safe for my child to return to sports after an injury?

This can vary widely depending on the injury/condition. In general, a child should be pain-free (or nearly pain-free), able to fully move a limb and have no swelling and no limp before returning to sport. Depending on the injury, the child may need to do physical therapy/strengthening exercises before returning. 

Will my child's sports injury have long-term effects or impact their future athletic performance? 

This will be very specific to the type of injury a child has. Generally, children heal quickly but should be evaluated if they have any of the concerning symptoms noted above, such as persistent pain, inability to fully move a limb, limp or swelling. Kids are resilient and with early recognition of an injury and partnership with a medical team, most sports injuries and related conditions can be treated, with a child eventually returning to their previous performance level. 

How can I support my child emotionally during their recovery from a sports injury? 

A pediatrician or pediatric sports medicine specialist can talk with you about the types of activities a child can do to stay fit during their recovery from a sports injury.  

Emotionally, being away from sports can make a child feel isolated from their team and teammates. Additionally, the physical activity of sports may be the outlet a child relies on for their mental well-being. Keeping this in mind, a pediatric sports medicine specialist can work with patients to figure out ways to mitigate these feelings during a recovery period. For example, if the patient has an upper extremity injury (such as shoulder, or arm), they may be able to participate in lower body conditioning. And there may be opportunities during recovery for a patient to participate in practice with a team in a modified way. 

The recovery period for a sports injury can also be a meaningful time for the young patient to dive into their other interests and outlets for expression, such as music or art. For young athletes whose self-identities are strongly associated with their participation in sports, parents and caregivers can also use this recovery time to emphasize their child’s value and worth outside of athletics. 

Are there any precautions or safety measures I should take to prevent re-injury once my child returns to sports?  

Returning to sports with persistent injury is a big risk factor. Avoid overtraining, and make sure appropriate safety gear and precautions are being used and in place. 

Having caregivers and sports coaches who are well-trained in recognizing symptoms of sports injuries is also key. In Chicago, programs like KIPP (Lurie Children’s Knee Injury Prevention Program) offer no-cost training for coaches and athletes on ways to prevent knee injuries. Knowing about this and other similar resources can go a long way. 

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