Children are extraordinarily resilient when it comes to their physical health, whether they have suffered a little scrape or a broken bone. Our young athletes are back to full activity following injury in a fraction of the time that it would take their parents to recover. At the same time, small, seemingly insignificant injuries that occur during periods of growth and development often make them more vulnerable to related injuries in the future. Armed with an understanding of the impact of these previous injuries and a proactive mindset, you are better equipped to keep your kids healthy and excelling at the activities they love.
The body has an incredible ability to heal itself, learn new skills, and modify its tissues based on the demands we put upon it. Kids are highly adaptable; they are a malleable clay that will be shaped by their activities and habits over time. This allows the young baseball player to improve their hand-eye coordination and the gymnast to gain flexibility. High adaptability also means that children will naturally find compensatory movement patterns in the presence of injury. These patterns often persist long after the damaged area has healed and increase the likelihood of future injury.
Let’s look at an example using the most common injury in young athletes: the ankle sprain. The symptoms from mild ankle sprains often subside within a few days, while more severe sprains may take several weeks. However, due to changes in the nervous system and connective tissues, many people end up with altered range of motion, strength, and balance. This explains why subsequent ankle sprains occur so frequently. These changes can also result in slightly altered running mechanics, which start to accumulate extra stress on the knee, hip, and back during activity. These adaptations can manifest as new symptoms or injuries in the short term or many years later. Many of my adult patients with “weak ankles” or “bad knees” likely started with minor lower body injuries and altered movement patterns that accumulated over time.
The good news is that kids are highly adaptable! Even in the absence of symptoms, we can identify changes in joint function, strength, and movement patterning, and they are extremely responsive to our interventions. Manual techniques, acupuncture, education, and movement re-training are all extremely effective when the therapist thoroughly examines all of the contributing factors.
All of this hinges on listening to our young athletes when they repeatedly complain about pain or injury, and acting on it by getting them to the experts who can effectively assess and treat them. Ideally, it also means identifying altered movement patterns before symptoms arise by screening our athletes regularly. Through a proactive approach, we can keep kids healthy and active well into their adult lives and prevent small, seemingly insignificant issues from becoming worse and impacting day to day activites we often take for granted.