As significant injuries rise in all levels of sports, athletic trainers around the area help local high-school athletes safe.
It’s like waiting for the inevitable, said West Orange High head athletic trainer Matt Laws.
“It’s physically impossible to prevent injury in sports; it’s not going to happen,” said Laws, who works alongside his wife, Jennifer, another athletic trainer. “Whether it be the general wear and tear from playing the game, you’ll never be 100%.
“One thing I heard from one of my mentors, and it really stuck with me, is that sports medicine isn’t the best medicine,” he said. “In a lot of avenues, a lot of the athletes that we have that have certain muscular or musculoskeletal injuries going on throughout a season, we keep them healthy enough for them to participate.”
CONCUSSIONS CAUSE CONCERN
There are numerous health risks that come with sports, but the one that has worried the general public the most has to be concussions — especially as it relates to football.
At the national level, the debate began to rage following the suicide of NFL linebacker Junior Seau. In the Hall of Famer’s autopsy, doctors found he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a neurodegenerative disease brought on by numerous blows to the head.
Concussions are common — about 1.1 to 1.9 million sports/rec-related concussions occur in youth athletes under age 18 annually, according to the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“A true concussion is going to be when there is any form of bleeding around the brain, which will, in turn, swell,” Laws said. “If the swelling starts to get worse, it pinches just like if you had swelling in any part of your body. It can impact pretty much anything in the human body, because the brain controls everything.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t much one can do to prevent concussions, but there are some ways players and coaches can limit the injury from occurring.
The most basic precaution is simply making sure that a player’s helmet fits snugly, said Ranil Sirigampola, who serves primarily as the athletic trainer at Foundation Academy through CORA Physical Therapy.
It’s also about teaching proper tackling technique.
“I like to get a little involved as well in teaching proper mechanics — not leading with your head, not dropping your head,” Sirigampola said. “I always make a point that if I see it, I’m going to pull the kid aside, and I’m going to get into his face mask and give him the facts straight up. When you kind of scare them a little bit, it sticks a little more than just saying, ‘Form tackle, form tackle, form tackle.’”
Being aware of the telltale signs of one when its happens is important, as well. Symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness and a change in personality are all typical of concussions. The easiest to pick up on — if you know your player well — is the latter.
“We have had athletes before who have had very drastic personality change or they develop certain speech issues or aggressiveness that are not normal due to the head injury,” Laws said.
EARLY SPECIALIZATION LEADS TO ISSUES
As youth sports become more commercialized, the concept of early specialization has become normal.
For those looking to eventually make their way to the upper echelons of their sport, children as young as 4 and 5 begin their training. But that is leading to more injuries.
“What we’re seeing — and this can’t be argued — are kids having the kinds of injuries that you didn’t see until people were in their 20s,” said Dan Bessetti, head athletic trainer and owner of Total Athlete Training, which focuses on training youth athletes. “Tommy John surgeries in young teenagers — if not 12 and 13 years old — and ACL injuries in female athletes that are non-contact are also common.
“It’s honestly an epidemic,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s too much money flowing for anybody to say, ‘We shouldn’t be making these kids play soccer 10 to 11 months every year at a high, elite level.’”
The issue is that by having a player solely concentrate on one sport, it also means they’re overworking specific parts of their bodies.
For instance, a player who only plays baseball will put too much stress on the joints in his arms — especially the rotator cuff, a group of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder. In soccer, the overuse of leg muscles and joints can overextend and eventually tear.
This issue of overuse is one of the most common causes of injuries among athletes, but there are a few options to help prevent such overuse.
The first is having athletes play multiple sports throughout the year.
“I can tell you from my experience that multi-sport athletes are the ones I’ve had in high school who have had less injuries,” Laws said.
Sirigampola said he had seen the same at Foundation and that multi-sport athletes had a real advantage.
“Youth athletes should not be specializing at an early age — they should be playing every sport under the sun, because their body gets to develop in certain planes of motion,” Sirigampola said. “They get to do different movements in each sport. It’s not the same thing over and over again. It sets them up for more functional strength later on when they specialize in a sport going into high school and beyond.”
UNDIAGNOSED HEALTH ISSUES
The most dangerous issue affecting youth athletes today is also the least common — undiagnosed health conditions.
Despite that fact, undiagnosed health conditions — mainly heart issues and sickle cell — are the No. 1 cause of death among young athletes. It’s an event that Laws experienced first-hand.
“I was at the school when we had a young man, Oliver Lewis, who passed away,” Laws said. “He didn’t know he had a medical condition, which ultimately was the cause of his death.”
Among the undiagnosed issues, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common.
According to the Mayo Clinic, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is an inherited condition where the walls of the heart muscle thicken. The conditions caused by the thickened muscle can “disrupt the heart’s electrical system, leading to fast or irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), which can lead to sudden cardiac death.”
These conditions can be best identified with proper testing before the start of the season.
“The pre-participation is going to be your telltale sign —making sure they’re getting their pre-participation physicals from a physician trained in doing these physicals,” Sirigampola said.