Football injury-prevention is a game-changer

Date Published: 
August 28, 2015

Kids are heading back to school, and that means it’s time for fall sports. Is the young athlete in your house playing football this year? It’s a great sport, and it teaches so many positive lessons about teamwork and fair play, to say nothing of all the positives that come with being active and staying in shape. Like any sport, though, football has its risks.

Football is the leading cause of school sports injuries. The latest numbers from the Consumer Product Safety Commission, from 2013, show some 881,700 football injuries were suffered by kids between the ages of 5 and 18.There are numerous studies that have looked at the issue of kids and football injuries, too. They show that about 20 percent of football players between the ages of 8 and 14 are injured during the typical school football season.

Findings reveal more than 150,000 of the kids injured who are younger than 15 wind up in hospital emergency rooms. Injury rates for high school football players are around 64 percent. Statistics give you a real sense of the scope of the problem and why you should be setting the safety tone for the season.

Sprains and strains are what cause players of every age group a slew of problems. For younger kids, the injuries often occur to shoulders, arms and hands, while older kids are often looking at knee and ankle injuries and other problems with their lower limbs. Of course, fractures, ligament strains and broken bones happen every season, too.

Concussions are another big issue that should always have your attention. But you also want to be aware of overuse injuries, because they can be acute and cause very serious damage. These types of injuries usually happen from repetitive training and occur over time. Don’t downplay the importance of being alert and watchful, and getting injuries treated immediately when they occur.

The bottom line is obvious: Who wants their kid to suffer an injury? And some of the more difficult injuries put your youngster at risk of suffering a chronic problem that can last a lifetime.

As a parent, you want all the help you can get to keep your child safe, and that’s why we’re going to look at some important steps you can take to give your young player the best opportunity to have a healthy season.

Before the season gets under way, has your youngster been keeping in shape? You can’t just walk on the field and start playing. It’s just as important to be in good shape.

There are flexibility and strengthening programs for every age. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist with the specialized training in sports to answer any questions you may have about age appropriate fitness. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that proper nutrition is extremely important year ’round to provide the fuel a body needs to respond to the demands of a vigorous sport.

No season should begin without a proper physical. Most schools require them, but whether your youngster’s school does or not, a physical is a must before beginning practice and competitive play, to be sure there are no problems that could create a greater risk of injury.

A big step in injury prevention is getting the protective gear your youngster needs. Don’t be surprised if you get some push-back, but here’s what you need to do: You need to set the rules. Gear has to be worn for every practice and every game. No gear, no play — no exceptions.

Start with a proper helmet with a strong facemask and make sure the fit is right. Because there are different helmets for different purposes and positions, you want to be sure about the choice.

Check to see that the facemask is made of coated carbon steel. The chin strap and its protective chin cup should have a snug fit. Check the safety standards for the helmet you are looking at, to make sure it’s going to do the job.

There are places to get help if you’re not sure. Talk to your coach, ask questions at the sports store where you’re considering getting the helmet, and check the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

If the sports equipment is being provided by the team, ask about it. Your kid may be mortified if you ask questions, but you can make a simple, strong argument: Better to be a little embarrassed than suffer a head injury that could destroy your life. Enough said.

The pants your youngster wears need to include pads. Some pants have special pockets inside that hold the padding, some have snap in pads, and others are designed to fit over pads that are directly secured to the body.

Whatever the style, make sure knees, hips, thighs and the tailbone are properly padded and the fit of those pants is correct to align padding with the areas to be protected. Don’t forget shoulder pads. The proper shoulder pad has thick padding inside a hard plastic cover or shell.

Other critical equipment includes shoes with cleats that are of the proper length, a mouth guard with a strap that attaches to the facemask and an athletic supporter.

Many youngsters also wear neck rolls, gloves and forearm pads. And if your youngster wears glasses, plastic lenses or glass lenses that are guaranteed shatterproof are what’s needed before your youngster takes the field for practice or a game.

Warm-up exercises and stretching before every practice or game should be mandatory. Warm-ups and stretching need to pay special attention to arms, shoulders, hips, knees, thighs and calves.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to know that all the research points to more injuries occurring when muscles are cold. Spending 5 to 10 minutes doing a proper preparation program isn’t much to invest to avoid an injury.

Another important game changer is hydration. Drinking before, during and after practices and games is an absolute must to avoid heat stress or a full-blown heat illness. These are not minor problems, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Explain to your youngster that waiting until you’re thirsty can be too late. Your body needs enough fluids to keep cooling down, and that means starting with 20 to 24 ounces of fluid that has no caffeine, a good two hours before exercise. Right before exercise or play, another 8 ounces of water or a sports drink is a good idea. After that, every 20 minutes, your youngster should be getting another 8 ounces of fluid to keep the body well hydrated.

The playing surface itself needs to be in proper shape, and don’t forget to think about the impact of weather conditions that can lead to poor footing. Are there any fences or other potentially dangerous objects or structures close to the field of play? Some fields are better than others, and you want to be sure there are no unnecessary risks for injuries.

After the game, there should be a cool-down program that includes stretching. Way too often, this is ignored. The fact is stretching not only helps your youngster with less muscle soreness, but it keeps the muscles more flexible, and that goes a long way toward lessening the risk of an injury.

Part of keeping your youngster safe means having a talk with your football player about injuries. Kids never want to come out of the game, and they don’t like to admit when they’re hurt.

You need to set firm rules on this. Set the rules from the get-go and make it clear that the rule is: if you have any pain or discomfort, you have to take yourself out of the game. Never, ever play through pain. Explain that it only increases the severity of an injury and keeps you out of action longer.

Coaches play an important safety role, and that’s why you need to be an involved parent. You want to be sure of two things: First, you want to know that there is a proper first-aid kit and a plan to address injuries if they do occur. Second, the coaches have to have the right credentials. Anyone can say they’re a coach, but when your youngster’s safety is at risk, that’s just not good enough.

If any injury does occur, get to a doctor right away and have it properly checked out. Medical professionals will tell you that once a player is injured, they should not return to the game until all symptoms are completely gone.

Kids don’t want to hear it, but spell it out. There must be no sign of a problem, including no pain and no swelling, and the doctor has to give the go-ahead. Symptom free, by the way, also means your youngster has full range of motion and is back to normal strength.

Often, a variety of injuries, including sprains, severe strains, ligament damage and fractures, require physical therapy to complete the healing process. You want to be sure the physical therapist entrusted with your child’s recovery has proper credentials in sports rehabilitation and uses those skills routinely, because that means they are staying current on the ever-changing approaches and new developments that can give your child the best treatment plan for the best possible outcome.

The physical therapist will create a treatment plan in consultation with the doctor. And, don’t be afraid to ask questions about how your youngster is doing and what progress is being seen. You can always ask for advice to keep your child healthy once physical therapy is completed.

If the physical therapist gives your child some exercises to do at home, make sure they get done. It’s all about the process and taking the right steps with the right program to get your youngster back on their feet and back in the game.

When all is said and done, sports are the perfect combo — fun and fitness rolled into one. Wishing your football star a great, healthy season. Play safe, play fair and have fun!

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.