Safely returning to sports after the pandemic slump: Lurie Children’s orthopedists weigh in

April 07, 2021

Patient Corey with Dr. Michelle Sagan. Corey broke a bone earlier this year while playing football.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for many children and teens to get the daily exercise they need. Gyms and playgrounds shut down. Group sporting events were canceled.

But with loosening social distancing restrictions and warmer temperatures, young people are returning to soccer fields, playgrounds and baseball diamonds. Meanwhile, pediatric orthopedic specialists at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago have a message for these young people and their parents: please return to activity safely!

“I remind my patients to not go from zero to 100 miles an hour,” said Dr. Neeraj Patel, a pediatric orthopedist and sports medicine physician, surgeon and researcher at Lurie Children’s.

Many of Dr. Patel’s patients who are young athletes and, pre-pandemic, played sports and worked out daily “haven’t been doing much of anything in terms of physical exercise for about a year at this point,” he said.

To prevent injuries – especially to injury-prone knees – it is best to return gradually to rigorous contact sports such as soccer, football and lacrosse. Dr. Patel said he tells some of his multi-sport athletes to pick one sport and/or team to play with, rather than overextending themselves. In some cases, especially for young people who’ve experienced past sports injuries, it is best for kids to begin practicing at 50 percent of their usual intensity, and then keep adding to the intensity level, as long as they don’t experience pain or swelling.

Certainly, patients with a history of sports injuries are best served by talking with their pediatric orthopedist about the safest course of action for their individual needs.

Non-athletes need to be careful, too

Even children and teens who don’t play group sports should be aware of the deconditioning they may have experienced over the past year due to sitting or lying down for longer than normal periods of time, said Dr. Michelle Sagan, a pediatric orthopedic specialist and surgeon who oversees a fracture clinic at Lurie Children’s.

Dr. Sagan said in recent months she has seen in her clinic many young people dealing with weight gain, back and neck pain, or loss of balance control that can be result of being inactive.

Dr. Patel with athlete and patient, Caylee, who underwent an ACL reconstruction 

“They’re not stretching or using their bodies in the same way they were when they were going to school and having their normal routines,” Dr. Sagan said.

These young people, because their bodies are still developing, can be at a higher risk for pulled muscles or certain fractures if they return to rigorous activity without building up strength. A combination of walking and running along with strength training – push-ups and other body weight resistance exercises – is often an effective combination for gaining strength and stamina, she said.

Orthopedists who have specialized training in pediatrics are a good resource for children and teens who are struggling physically with returning to activity, or who have new or lingering sports injuries, Dr. Patel said. Treatment for sports injuries and fractures will often look different in young people and adults -- even if the diagnosis is similar.

Pediatric orthopedists have a unique understanding of how the specific age and development stage of the child will affect their orthopedic care from birth until they are mature, added Dr. Sagan. Read more about importance of pediatric orthopedists here.

“This allows us to cater care to the child’s individual needs based on not only the development of their musculoskeletal system, but also their maturity level,” Dr. Sagan said.

Lurie Children’s orthopedic and sports medicine specialists have outpatient clinics in Westchester, Northbrook and Skokie, among other Chicago suburbs. For more information, visit LurieChildrens.org/sportsmedicine.