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Kids & Sports Injuries: What to Do If Your Young Athlete Gets Hurt

After a Sports Injury: When to see a doctor After a Sports Injury: When to see a doctor

By: Tiana S. Woolridge, MD, MPH

Physical activity is good for kids. It helps them build strength, learn new skills and explore the value of teamwork. But no matter how many precautions their parents, coaches and teachers take, young athletes still face risks for getting hurt.

Every year, more than 3.5 million kids across the United States receive treatment for sports-related injuries. Sprained ankles, broken bones, concussions, torn or stretched ligaments and broken or loose teeth are common examples. Whether they play high-impact sports such as hockey and football or low-contact activities like dance, track or swimming, kids can and do suffer injuries.

As a parent or caregiver, what should you know about sports and health? Here are tips, techniques and perspectives to help you feel better prepared to support your child.

How do sports injuries happen in children & teens?

Even though we think of kids as strong and resilient, their bodies can suffer wear, tear and trauma just like ours. In fact, young people are even more prone to sports injuries because their bodies are still growing.

Injuries that come from repetitive motion are just one example. A young ball player who trains for hours every week might make the same arm movements hundreds of times, causing damage to muscles, tendons or nerves. (Adults face these injuries too, but because their bodies are fully developed, their risks are relatively lower.)

Other injuries happen when kids don't use protective gear the right way or skip it altogether.

For example, brain injuries can result when helmets aren't put on properly (or left sitting on the sidelines). Permanent teeth can get chipped, cracked or knocked out when mouth guards aren't in place. Eye injuries can be common without protective eyewear in certain sports.

When your child is injured playing sports: 7 tips for parents

Here are ways you can feel better prepared for a sports emergency and the healing process your child will need to follow.

Know when to seek emergency care for a sports injury.

Go to the nearest emergency room if your young athlete is:

  • Struggling to breathe

  • Unconscious, confused or weak after a hard hit or fall

  • Bleeding heavily or coughing up blood

  • Showing signs of broken bones, teeth or joints

  • Unable to put weight on either leg or walk without pain

  • Feeling numbness, tingling, weakness or cold sensations anywhere in the body

  • Experiencing a fast heartbeat that won't slow down

Having a copy of your child's insurance cards will make things easier in any emergency. After your child is evaluated, listen carefully to all instructions for follow-up care. Make sure your child's regular doctor is notified so they can offer ongoing treatment.

Know how to treat swelling and pain at home.

Many sports injuries can be treated with rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE for short). Place an ice pack on the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day, then wrap the area in a compression bandage. Elevate an injured leg, foot, arm or hand above your child's heart with pillows or cushions to ease swelling. If your child wants to move around more than you think is safe, remind them that rest is part of getting well.

Offer emotional support.

Sports injuries affect the body and the mind, so consider how you can help your child deal with difficult emotions. Young athletes often feel frustrated, sad or anxious when they can't keep playing. They may worry they'll never be able to enjoy sports again or assume their "life is ruined." (High-school athletes looking forward to playing in college may be especially at risk of these thoughts.)

You can help your child by talking openly about what happened, listening to their concerns without judgment. Avoid comments that suggest they (or someone else) could have prevented the injury. Placing blame might trigger guilt, anger or feelings of helplessness that won't help your child get well. Instead, let them know you'll be with them every step of the way as they recover.

Athletes of all ages may experience anxiety, depression (or both) after an injury. If you see signs that your child's mental health is suffering, talk to their doctor. Screening tests can help determine if focused treatment is needed. Practices such as visualization, mindfulness and breath work can help, paired with medication and talk therapy as appropriate.

Work closely with health care professionals.

Along with your child's medical team, there may be other professionals who can support you and your child. Middle schools and high schools often have certified athletic trainers who can suggest safe, home-based exercises. Collaboration with doctors, coaches, physical therapists and other professionals will support your child's recovery.

Study sports health together.

Kids may enjoy learning more about sports medicine while they're getting better. Look for videos and guides that stress the value of warming up, stretching, eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest. Ask your child's coach for guidelines or tools you can review together.

Help your child stay connected.

Encourage your child to keep in touch with friends and teammates as they recover. Maybe they'd like to attend games, meets or performances as a spectator or invite a few friends over to hang out. Time with peers will help them feel less isolated and more comfortable, especially if they can't attend school at first.

Focus on the long game.

While you and your child may be eager for them to hit the playing field again, keep in mind that rushing things can trigger new injuries. In fact, kids who go back too soon can suffer long-term consequences that affect (or even end) their sports careers.

Getting back in the game sooner isn't nearly as important as healing fully. Remind your child that recovery takes patience, consistency and dedication – all the same qualities that helped them become good athletes. Let them know you trust their ability to heal, one day at a time, and you'll be there for them no matter what.

More information

About Dr. Woolridge

Dr. Tiana Woolridge is a sports medicine fellow physician within the University of California, Los Angeles Tiana Woolridge, MD, MPH is a sports medicine fellow physician within the University of California, Los Angeles Department of Family Medicine. She is a member of the AAP Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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