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Preventing ACL Injuries In Kids: Really a Matter of Child's Play

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Do you remember Dr. Spock's motto, "Live long and prosper"? Great words to live by and a dream all parents have for their kids. However, today's kids may not get to adulthood without some sort of long-term problem created by the sports they love. A recent article in the The Boston Globe with some of the country's leading pediatric orthopedists drives that point home.

Aptly titled "Torn ACLs, other big Injuries hit little athletes," the article is a healthy mix of stories about real kids injured in sports with current statistics and recommendations to help potentially improve the future. The first paragraph is a sobering reminder of the type of overuse injuries are kids are facing these days in sports: a stress fracture of the lower back in a teen gynmast, a torn ACL in a pre-teen soccer player, a stress fracture in a runner's leg, a teen basketball player with a torn meniscus.

This list of injuries is not the result of selection bias by looking into the waiting room of a specialist's office. These are truly the type of injuries kids are suffering in sports today - and most start out being seen in pediatric offices just like mine. And, as the article acurately states, the number of kids injured like this due to sports is most certainly on the rise. In fact, 3.5 million kids were seen for sports related injuries in the last year alone. It used to be I'd see a handful of bad injuries for every sports season. Now I can count on seeing at least a few a shift. No longer can I assume an injuried child has "just a sprain" or "just a bruise". While some kids luck out with these minor injuries, many more do not and end up needing to be referred rather quickly to an orthopedist.

What always amazes me in the wake of a bad injury is when I'm asked when the kids can return to play. Honestly, that should be furthest from your mind as a parent. Kids who injure themselves this severely must be allowed to heal correctly and that does take time. Just think about the DL list for the pros. I blogged about this recently, in fact.

Even more concerning than the rate of rise of youth sports injuries is the type of injuries we are seeing. Many of these injuries are injuries we never used to see in kids that are occurring because kids' bodies are being pushed more intensely and at younger ages than ever before. This has simply got to stop! As Dr. Dr. E. Lyle Cain, an Orthopedist from Birmingham, AL, told The Globe, "Youth athletes are not the same as small adults." And some injuries "can cause permanent damage that affect their future growth."

We have to remember that everything our kids do in their childhoods impacts their future lives. Youth sports should be helping our kids become more fit and healthy and instead it is having the exact opposite effect.

The good news is we can stop this madness! How? Simple: change the pace of our kids' youth sports lives by trying to meet these goals:

  1. We have to stop pushing our kids so hard, so young.

  2. We have to let their injuries heal when they occur. 

  3. We have to give them more variety in their sports and fitness program year ‘round. 

  4. We have to let kids have time for recreational sports in the form of form of free play.

The last point is perhaps the most important for our kids' overall health and the point youth sports experts have been advising for a while now. Dr. Kocher told The Globe that increasing the amount of basic outdoor fun has another very important benefit for our kids: it is protective for ACL injuries: "A lot of the stuff kids used to do in free play was ACL prevention," he says. "Now they don't get that, and they jump into high-level soccer.""

Talk about cool - and not requiring a carpool or fancy sports equipment!!

Sports and fitness are important to overall health and development but have to be incorporated into childhood the right way. At the moment, the injury rate and types of injuries are telling us that the mix is all wrong. So, let's regroup and try a different path. Free time with more play path is honestly the only path our kids have not been allowed to be on much and the one we have to let them travel on more while they are still kids. Their health and well being, today, tomorrow and in the future count on you being able to find them that time.