Teens and Tweens, Aches and Pains?
By Christine Doblar, PT
Any parent of a youth athlete would agree that today’s children partake in physical training at an intensity level which far exceeds anything that most of us experienced as kids. Competitive activities in our driven culture require a high level of commitment to avoid being left sitting on the sidelines. Relentless and exhausting training schedules, accompanied by multiple weekend games, meets, matches, performances and tournaments, leave growing bodies vulnerable to injury. Against the advice of many leading experts in medicine, coaching, and training, we’re seeing kids 12 to 18 years old who are now specializing in one sport. The previous model had athletic minded kids training for different sports in different seasons throughout the year. Remember when the three varsity sport athlete was the one with the prowess and the accolades? Those letters were displayed proudly on the coveted high school varsity jacket, which served as a wearable sports resume. Those multi-sport athletes were enjoying the benefits of cross training, and having less injuries. Why the obsession with specialized performance training? Perhaps the professional model has been pushed down to the collegiate ranks, then high school ranks, and is emulated in the youth programs. Specializing in one sport often leads to injuries because the same motions are being constantly repeated, in the same area of the body.
It’s not uncommon for adolescents to suffer from joint pain. These discomforts are not limited to kids participating in extracurricular activities. During the rapid growth that puberty brings, the long bones in the legs and arms are the first structures to grow. At the end portion of these bones are growth plates which are vulnerable to injury until puberty is complete. Bone growth often happens before soft tissue, muscles and tendons stretch out to their full length. It is analogous to the disparity between the length of last years jeans to this years legs. The uneven growth creates ongoing unbalanced forces on all joints and tendons. This sets the stage for increased pressure and misalignments in the joints. Because growth is uneven over the span of years, aches and pains may even seem to travel between different body parts. Remember that this is a phase of normal growth and does not always indicate a condition that requires medication, expensive diagnostics, a procedure, or a surgery. These are not injuries that require “fixing”, but they do require management. While healing or recovery is occurring, the body will not devote it’s resources to growing, getting stronger or gaining mobility. Further injury can be caused by performing activity while a body is trying to cope with it’s compromising situation. The body will not be firing on all cylinders, making the child prone to injury during activity.
Well that’s just great, isn’t it? You have already spent oodles of money, time, blood, sweat and tears to support your most precious one. Fear not, conscientious parent! All the efforts you have put towards helping your child thrive are absolutely beneficial, in many regards. The fact is, you have to do just a bit more to insure your child avoids injuries. They need your help to recognize when their bodies need a break to recover.
When they are hurting, provide them with permission to rest from training, ice packs, oral anti inflammatory medicines, kinesiology tape, and any other available modalities.
It is impossible to put one size fits all boundaries on physical activity, as each unique body, sport, training demands, and schedule is different. The ticket is paying attention to your kids and helping them learn to interpret their body signals. If your tweens and teens are anything like mine, they don’t necessarily offer regular insights into how they feel, physically or emotionally. You need to watch how they are moving and talk to them. Inquire about a limp, a hitch in their step, a slower than usual run, rubbing of a body part, or a decreased desire to attend their previously beloved activity. Persisting aches and pains, though often benign, should be investigated.
When the human body is trying to heal itself, it is not able to gain strength or mobility. For this reason, we cannot push an inflamed body part to perform. Only after full healing has occurred, should help your child switch from an anti-inflammatory routine to develop a preventative strength and flexibility program. If your kid is still feeling pain, there is a persisting imbalance or healing process occurring. Don’t hesitate to solicit guidance from physicians, teachers, coaches, trainers, and physical therapists. A specific plan can be custom designed to help your go getter prevent future injury and find their body’s perfect balance.