Overuse Injuries and Kids: A Sports Physical Therapist Answers Your Questions

Overuse injuries can occur at all ages. But because kids are still growing, they’re at a greater risk for these types of injuries, and may need a pediatric expert to ensure they heal properly.

Leanne Kidd, MSPT, a Connecticut Children’s sports physical therapist, explains what parents and young athletes should know.

What is a sports overuse injury?

An overuse injury is caused by repeated stress of a muscle group or joint (rather than a one-time injury such as a collision or fall).

There are lots of different types of overuse injuries, affecting everything from bones to muscles to tendons and ligaments. They tend to show up first as mild pain or discomfort, and gradually get worse over time.

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Why are kids and teens at greater risk for overuse injuries?

Kids’ growth plates are still open – typically, until around age 15 for girls, and age 17 for boys. These growth plates are made of cartilage, which is weaker and more susceptible to injury than mature bone. During this time, their muscles, tendons and bones may also be growing at different rates, which can cause microtrauma, leading to irritation, inflammation and pain.

When overuse injuries are caught and treated early, they usually aren’t a big deal. But if your child plays through the pain, they can create long-term problems. If an overuse injury becomes severe and isn’t treated properly, it can even damage your child’s growth plate and impact their potential bone growth.

> Related: The 7 Rules of Sports Injury Prevention for Young Athletes

What causes overuse injuries in kids and teens?

Overuse injuries can be the result of:

  • Ramping up an activity too quickly: Youth athletes need 6 weeks to get back in shape
  • Not allowing adequate rest or recovery time
  • Repetitive or excessive movements, especially with poor technique: For example, repeatedly throwing with improper form can lead to Little League Shoulder
  • Playing one sport year-round: Specializing in one sport too early causes young athletes to repeatedly stress the same muscles, joints and tissues, which can lead to injury

> Related: Return to Play Resources for Athletes

What are the signs and symptoms that my child might have an overuse injury?

Teen girl holds knee in pain while sitting on high school track

Keep in mind that most overuse injuries begin as mild discomfort during specific activities or movements. If your child is complaining of pain, soreness, ache, tenderness, tightness or swelling, they may have an overuse injury.

Overuse injuries can occur anywhere in the body, and your child might notice symptoms during any of the following activities.

  • Sports-specific activities
  • Walking
  • Standing
  • Sitting in school or while watching a movie
  • Going from a sitting to a standing position
  • Ascending and descending stairs
  • Reaching overhead
  • Putting on or carrying a backpack
  • Other daily or recreational activities

Here are the 10 most common overuse injuries in kids, including specific symptoms and sports.

What should I do if I think my child might have an overuse injury?

  • Stop any painful activities immediately. Rest is the first step toward treating an overuse injury and making sure it doesn’t develop into something serious.
  • Talk to your child’s coach. They can reinforce appropriate restrictions and rest, work with your young athlete to improve their technique, and show them preventive stretching and strengthening exercises.
  • If your child continues to experience symptoms, get medical advice. Talk to your child’s primary care pediatrician, or schedule an appointment (including by Video Visit) with Connecticut Children’s sports medicine specialists.

Find Connecticut Children’s sports medicine services near you

Bottom line?

Make sure your child knows to stop playing if they feel pain, and talks to you and their coach.

By noticing overuse injuries early, and seeking medical advice if necessary, young athletes can often get back in the game after just a short rest or some adjustments to their activity – and avoid more serious injury, which could take them out for an entire season or more.

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