Young athletes are hitting the field year-round and giving it their all during practices, games and competition. That dedication and drive may be leading to an increase in knee injuries. And as athletes are playing more sports year-round, parents want to know how they can help keep their children healthy and safe.
Troy Smurawa, M.D., Director of Pediatric Sports Medicine at the Children’s Health℠ Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, shares his insight on common causes of knee pain and ways to prevent injuries in young athletes.
What sports tend to cause more knee injuries?
“We see athletes from many different sports. We have found that knee injuries really involve those sports where there is a lot of high impact and collision, or where there is a lot of quick starting and stopping or changing of direction,” Dr. Smurawa says. “Sports that involve landing from a high area may also be more likely to injure the knee.”
These types of sports may include:
- Competitive cheerleading
What are common knee injuries in young athletes?
“Knee injuries are often a result of either overuse or an acute injury from sudden impact or collision,” Dr. Smurawa explains. “Acute injuries include sprains and strains, and sometimes even torn ligaments or fractures. Overuse injuries may include patellofemoral pain syndrome, tendonitis or patellar tendinitis.”
Common knee injuries in young athletes include:
Patellofemoral pain syndrome
Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also called runner’s knee, is a common cause of knee pain. If your child is regularly complaining of pain in the front of his knee, he may be suffering from this knee injury that is often caused by overuse.
Tendinitis refers to the inflammation and swelling of the tendons. Patellar tendinitis affects the patellar tendon, which runs from the patella (knee cap) to the tibia (shinbone). Osgood-Schlatter disease and pain at the front of the knee can be a cause of tendinitis.
Torn ligaments and cartilage injuries
Injuries to the ligaments and cartilage tend to result from sudden impact and collision, such as in football or soccer. The most common ligament injury is a tear or sprain to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or medial collateral ligament (MCL). While injuries to the ACL may require surgery, a sprained MCL can often be treated with rest, strengthening and rehabilitation.
Knee fractures are rare among young athletes. However, there is a risk of injury to the growth plate in the knee. Be sure to have all injuries that keep your child from bearing weight on his or her leg, or those that do not improve over a few days, evaluated by a doctor.
How are knee injuries treated?
“Fortunately, most knee injuries tend to heal on their own with a little rest and care at home,” Dr. Smurawa says. “If pain persists over a few days and doesn’t seem to be improving, contact your pediatrician for an initial evaluation. You may then need to see a sports medicine or orthopedic specialist depending on that evaluation and diagnosis.”
When sports injuries occur, Dr. Smurawa and his team recommend keeping a simple word in mind – PRICE:
- Protect the knee: Take your athlete out of the practice, game or meet. Use a brace or crutches if necessary.
- Rest: Avoid high-impact sports. Try a sport like swimming or biking while your injury heals. Ease yourself back into your sport as you begin to feel better and avoid the temptation to overdo it.
- Ice: Apply ice for 20-30 minutes every 2-4 hours to help reduce pain and swelling.
- Compression: Wrap the knee with a compressive bandage or knee sleeve to help reduce swelling.
- Elevate: Put a pillow under the knee to raise it above the heart, which also helps reduce swelling.
If the injury and pain doesn’t improve, your child’s orthopedic physician will design a treatment plan that effectively addresses pain and the underlying cause of injury. Treatments, in addition to continuing PRICE, may include:
- Physical therapy and/or rehabilitation
- Functional knee brace
- Exercises with stretching
Can knee injuries be prevented?
“There’s no way we can completely prevent a sports knee injury, but we can do a lot of things to reduce the risk of knee injuries,” says Dr. Smurawa.
His advice on helping your child avoid knee injuries includes:
- Wear the right shoes. This is a simple, and effective, way of protecting your child. Inserts may also help improve gait and stance.
- Encourage your child to play her skill set, rather than placing pressure on her to “play up” a level.
- Consider the playing environment. Run on a synthetic track or soft surface. Make sure all playing fields are properly maintained and free of objects. Inspect all courts and clean up any debris or water before play begins.
- Start a conditioning program, like the Sports Performance program powered by EXOS at Children’s Health Andrews Institute. This program teaches athletes the skills and strength training they need to use their bodies correctly and avoid injury.
Address issues when they arise
It can be easy to brush off aches and pains as something that goes along with playing sports. However, pain is the body’s way of telling you something isn’t right.
If your child complains of knee pain for a few days, or there are obvious signs of injury, such as swelling, redness or tenderness, contact your pediatrician. Your child’s doctor may want to refer you to an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist for further evaluation or treatment.
The only pediatric institute of its kind in Texas, the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine aims at reducing the number of children being sidelined from injury. Learn more about our programs and services.
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