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Young Athletes Face High Risk of Back Injuries, Report Says

Breaking the Tackle
Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

When you think about people who are plagued by back troubles, the image of a healthy 10-year-old kid doesn't exactly spring to mind. But according to a recent NPR report, back injuries in young athletes are becoming far more common than you'd think.

Take 10-year-old Jack Everett of Los Angeles. Just last year, the avid sports fan was playing club soccer up to six times a week. But between the morning workouts, afternoon skill sessions and weekend scrimmages, it was all becoming too much. Soon his back started bothering him, and a trip to the doctor revealed he had a pars stress fracture. The reason? Overuse, he was told.

"Who knew," his mother later told NPR, "that elastic little kids can break?"

Apparently, a lot of them are breaking—merely from playing too much. Today, Jack spends most of his days indoors, wearing a back brace and playing sports-centric video games, rather than playing them, himself. But he's not alone.

According to Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Loyola Medicine in Maywood, Ill., such injuries are happening at an alarming rate to kids just like Jack. Jayanthi studied just over 1,200 young athletes last year, and learned that lower back ailments were the third-most-common injury in athletes under 18—right after knee and ankle injuries. Jayanthi's findings were presented last year at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference.

These back injuries Jayanthi is citing aren't just minor pulls and strains, either. Nearly half of them were so extreme, they sidelined kids for anywhere from one to six months. And worse, they put the kids at risk for future long-term back problems. In most cases, these injuries were all caused by repeated bending, compounded by just plain over-exertion.

So what can you do to make sure your kid avoids winding up in a back brace? Jayanthi recommends not allowing them to spend more hours a week than their age playing sports. They also should not spend more than twice as much time playing organized sports as they spend in gym class. Another rather unorthodox tip? Jayanthi says we shouldn't have our kids specializing in just one sport until late adolescence—excluding sports like gymnastics and diving, which require athletes to compete from a young age.

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