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The changing culture of youth sports

With children starting to play sports at younger ages and playing their sports year-round, the chance they are going to get injured is on the rise. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," recently spoke with Dr. Pietro Tonino, the chief of sports medicine at Loyola University in Chicago, about why these injuries are occurring and how to prevent them.

Lorraine Rapp: How has youth sports changed over the years?

Dr. Pietro Tonino: Well, I think every level of competition has changed. I think that youth sports have elevated the competition to an almost high school sport level. High schools have been elevated to a college level, because now you can see the Little League World Series on TV, on ESPN, where you’ve never seen them before. And I think the level of competition at the collegiate level has elevated to what we used to see in the old days as the professional level. So, every level has changed, I think. And there’s increasing emphasis on starting kids early in sports—both to compete, but also for educational purposes because a lot of these kids can use their athletic skills to secure scholarships for school, find good schools and secure positions and colleges.

Lorraine Rapp: So let’s talk about some of these injuries. Will you explain what types of injuries these would be?

Dr. Tonino: Well, it depends on the sport. If you’re in a travelling league playing basketball, if you’re playing on your school team playing basketball, if you’re playing in a summer league playing basketball, that means you’re playing basketball now every month of the year. And in those instances, the primary areas where we’re seeing problems is the knee joint, and tendinitis, or overuse injuries of the tendons around the knee cap. So most of these kids will see pain around the kneecap area, below the kneecap. And those kinds of things are things that normally respond to relative rest. We never want to tell an athlete they have to stop doing everything they’re doing. To have a kid not do anything at all and not participate in any sports and not do any activities would be very hard to tolerate at that age. But you can kind of reduce their activities with respect to their knee while letting them do other conditioning things. So, for example, if they have knee pain and they can’t jump, you can have them do biking or swimming and other activities that will let them keep in shape without aggravating the knee joint.

Linda Lowen: What are the long term consequences of injuries sustained at young ages?

Dr. Tonino: So these overuse injuries are things that typically don’t cause, necessarily, long term consequences. But they do cause short term disability to the point that you have to stop the activity, and then it puts you back. You have them doing all these things to keep them ahead, and all of a sudden by doing these things, you actually set them back maybe a month or two months or three months from things you want them to do.

Lorraine Rapp: What would you say are some of not only the mental and emotional benefits, but some of the physical benefits of kids participating in sports?

Dr. Tonino: There is no question that in America we have a problem with childhood obesity, and that exercise is good. What I would recommend for parents is that if they let their child play a contact sport like football, they should be prepared to assume some of the risk of an injury that can occur from that. But the one thing I tell parents is that children don’t malinger very much. So if you have a child that complains of pain from their sports activities, help them and don’t tell them to just "walk it off."

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sundays at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.