The younger you are, the faster you heal: an 8-year-old who sprains his ankle during a soccer game might be back on the field in as little as a few days; the same ankle sprain would likely hobble that child's mom or dad for a couple weeks.
But a child's ability to heal quickly from a sports injury is a mixed blessing with pluses and minuses.
On the plus side
Adolescents spend a considerable amount of energy and bodily resources to build muscles, bones, and organs. This same mechanism fixes the "broken" parts more quickly than in adults.
Younger bodies are more elastic: connective tissue can stretch more without tearing.
- In general, children who play sports are more fit than adults; as a result, their cardiovascular systems supply more blood to injured areas of their bodies, speeding the healing process.
The elasticity of a child's tissue is great for reducing the risk of minor injuries but can increase the risk of major injuries. Dislocated joints, such as the shoulder and hip, can occur because the muscles are not developed, exposing the joints to stresses that they can't handle. Creating unstable joints, because the body is too worn down, can lead to a future of severe arthritis and joint pain. A sprained ankle sustained by a very young child is more likely to result in a bone avulsion (tearing away of bone from bone) because the ligaments are stronger than the surrounding bone.
- The improved blood supply is fantastic for healing but only to a point. Young athletes with Osgood Schlatter's who constantly press through the pain can develop a large boney callous that builds in the irritated area. This area can create a weakened bridge for the patellar tendon and lead to a life of patellar tendonitis or patellofemoral dysfunction.
Balance present and future
Just because children can heal more quickly doesn't mean they should be allowed to allowed to play hurt. Remember, given time, they will still heal much faster than adults. But we need to think long term, not just in the now. Returning the 8-year-old with the injured ankle to the playing field so he can play for the championship is important, but so is the rest of his life. Let your child play in the here and now but always keep an eye on the future.