“No guts, no glory.” “No pain, no gain.” “Rub some dirt in it.” Sports clichés like these encourage young athletes to push themselves even when their bodies tell them to stop. But sucking it up raises players’ risk of sports injuries. If he could, Dr. Mininder Kocher, chief of the Sports Medicine Division, would erase these sayings from the list of motivational tactics used with young athletes.
Pain as a red flag for sports injury
Pain accompanied by swelling, limping, or a drop in performance are red flags of a potential sports injury. If your child has these or any of the following types of pain, make an appointment with their doctor or a sports medicine physician:
- pain that lasts hours or days after a practice or competition
- pain that does not go away with rest or gets worse over time
- pain triggered by normal daily activities like walking or climbing stairs
“’No pain, no gain’ does not apply to youth sports,” says Dr. Kocher. While an athletes’ legs might burn in the sprint to the finish line, such discomfort should go away soon after the activity ends. Pain is another story. “In young athletes in particular, pain is a sign that something’s wrong.”
COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to take sports-related pain seriously. In a typical fall, sports medicine physicians like Dr. Kocher see a wave of injured athletes who dove back into intense workouts without rebuilding the strength and stamina they lost over summer break. This year, many student athletes have had even more downtime. Unless these athletes take particular care to listen to their bodies as they return to practice, they are at even greater risk of preventable injuries that could force them to take the bench.
Ignoring pain says ‘bring it on’ to sports injuries
Pain, which can be an acute, a stabbing feeling that appears suddenly, or a lingering achiness that interferes with daily activities, very often signal a sports injury or potential injury. The problem could be simple, like Osgood-Schlatter disease, an overuse condition that causes pain and swelling around the upper shin. Or it could be more serious, like osteochondritis dissecans (OCD), a serious injury in which the cartilage around a joint separates from the bone.
“If we catch sports injuries early, they can often be treated with rest and physical therapy,” says Dr. Kocher. But injured athletes who play through their pain could face problems much more significant than whether or not they make the varsity team. “If an athlete waits until they can barely walk, sports injuries often require major surgery and can lead to early arthritis.”
Ignoring pain can also interfere with a young athlete’s growth. Up until puberty, children have areas of growing tissue, called growth plates, at each end of their long bones. When a teen reaches their adult height, usually around age 13 to 15 for girls and 15 to 17 for boys, their growth plates are replaced by solid bone. Until then, a growth plate fracture can permanently stunt the child’s growth.
Exercise sense to avoid sports injuries
The “no pain, no gain” mindset often goes hand in hand with early sports specialization, a trend of kids focusing on a single sport as early as elementary school. Many of the athletes who visit the Sports Medicine Division ignored pain in hopes of measuring up to a coach or parent’s expectations. Sadly, this often backfires, resulting in injuries that force kids off the field for a whole season, and sometimes longer.
In other words, ignoring pain in the quest for glory is a shortsighted tactic. “If a kid is sore after a game or practice, it’s very reasonable to ice the area, take some ibuprofen, and give it a few days of rest. But if it doesn’t get better, or if the soreness happens all the time when they play, they need to get it checked out,” advises Dr. Kocher.
Learn more about the Sports Medicine Division.
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