Understanding Growth Plate Injuries in Young Athletes: Prevention and Treatment

young athlete

Youth sports are booming in Nashville, with an increasing number of children participating in travel and year-round athletics. As physical activity becomes more encouraged to combat the childhood obesity epidemic, it's essential to understand the potential risks of overuse and repetitive stress injuries, particularly growth plate injuries, to keep young athletes healthy and on the field or court.

Understanding Growth Plates and Vulnerability to Injury

Growth plates, areas of cartilage at the end of bones where bone lengthens, play a crucial role in a child's growth. Because these growth areas remain cartilaginous and have not yet turned into solid bone in young and early adolescent children, they are particularly susceptible to injury. Specialization in a specific sport at an early age and repetitive forces on certain joints without adequate rest can further increase the risk of injury. Even children who engage in unstructured physical activities are not immune to growth plate injuries.

It's essential for parents, coaches, and athletes to recognize that young athletes are different from adults. Their growing skeletons make them more vulnerable, especially during growth spurts. Injuries occur when the force applied to a joint or bone exceeds what the vulnerable growth plate can tolerate. Common locations of growth plate injuries include the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and foot.

Common Growth Plate Injuries

  1. Knee Joint Growth Plate Injury (Osgood-Schlatter Disease): This injury occurs at the knee joint, where the patellar tendon pulls on its attachment to the growth plate at the top of the tibia. Athletes may experience pain over the front of the knee, along with localized swelling or a "bump" known as the tibial tubercle. Sports involving jumping, landing, and explosive movements often lead to this injury.

  2. Shoulder Growth Plate Injuries (Little Leaguer's Shoulder): Overhead-type athletics, such as baseball, softball, volleyball, and tennis, can cause growth plate injuries to the shoulder. Athletes typically complain of pain on the outside of the arm over the deltoid or shoulder.

  3. Sever's Disease: This growth plate injury affects the back of the calcaneus or "heel bone," where the Achilles tendon attaches. Young athletes with Sever's Disease experience pain over the heel, which can be exacerbated by excessive running, hard fields, poorly padded cleats, and tight calf muscles.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Growth Plate Injuries

Young athletes often complain of pain that worsens with activity. A thorough physical examination and x-rays are typically used to diagnose growth plate injuries. Fortunately, most symptoms can be resolved with rest, activity modification, anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen or naproxen), and sometimes physical therapy. However, if left untreated, these injuries can lead to prolonged time away from activity or even require surgery.

It's crucial to have a healthcare provider familiar with treating growth plate injuries evaluate your child to facilitate a pain-free return to sports activities safely. This evaluation will also rule out any other potential causes of your child's symptoms.

Prevention and Treatment

Understanding the vulnerability of growth plates allows parents, coaches, and athletes to implement preventive measures. Encouraging appropriate rest periods, avoiding excessive repetitive motions, and ensuring proper form during sports activities can help minimize the risk of growth plate injuries.

If a sports-related injury does occur in Nashville or Franklin, TN, seeking expert care from top-notch orthopedic surgeons is crucial. With the guidance of experienced physicians, your young athlete can receive the necessary evaluation and personalized treatment plan to promote a speedy recovery and safe return to sports.

Schedule an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon near you today to ensure the well-being of your young athlete. Remember, when it comes to overuse and growth plate injuries, "no pain, no gain" is not always the best strategy.

Stephen Hasselbring, PA-C, MSM

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