Preparing for an Injury-Free "Pee Wee” Football Season

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Nationally recognized orthopedic specialist Dr. Victor Khabie offers tips on keeping young football players safe.

Dr. Victor Khabie

Football is a wonderful game that helps improve a child’s physical fitness, coordination and self-discipline, and it can teach them a lot about teamwork. But it’s also one of the biggest causes of injury-related emergency room visits in children.

To many Americans, nothing says “autumn” quite like the start of football season, and to parents of school-age kids, that often means youth (or “pee wee”) football, which sends 5- to 14-year-olds onto the gridiron. But while junior football is wildly popular, with close to 4 million players in organized leagues, it can be a dangerous game, says Victor Khabie, MD, FAAOS, FACS, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Somers Orthopedic & Sports Medicine Group.

Each year, more than 3.5 million sports-related injuries in children are treated in hospitals, doctors' offices, clinics, ambulatory surgery centers and hospital emergency rooms in the United States, he says. And among those injuries, nearly 450,000—about 13 percent—were sustained playing football. It’s been estimated that more than a quarter of young football players are injured while playing.

“Football is a wonderful game that helps improve a child’s physical fitness, coordination and self-discipline, and it can teach them a lot about teamwork,” Dr. Khabie says, “but it’s also one of the biggest causes of injury-related emergency room visits in children.” Kids ages 5 to 14 account for nearly 40 percent of all sports-related injuries treated in hospitals.

“Pee wee football players are not just smaller versions of adult athletes,” he says. A child’s bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments are still growing, which makes them more susceptible to injury. Children also have marked differences in coordination, strength and stamina. “Young athletes of the same age also can vary a lot in physical and emotional maturity,” he adds, “and some may try to do things they’re just not ready to do.”

Typical Traumas
Because it’s a contact sport, football typically produces more acute (caused by a sudden trauma) that overuse injuries (caused by repetitive motions like pitching a baseball). But while football accounts for more serious injuries than any other sport, the vast majorities, about 95 percent, of injuries in young players are minor traumas involving soft tissues: bruises, muscle pulls, sprains and strains.

Younger kids are less likely to experience severe injuries because they’re smaller and slower than older children or adults. But junior football players are at a unique risk for injury to the growth plates, areas of developing cartilage in the long bones of the hand and fingers, forearm, leg and foot, which are weaker than the nearby ligaments and tendons. “Something that causes a bruise or sprain in an adult can be a potentially serious growth plate injury in a young athlete,” Dr. Khabie warns.

Staying Safe Out There
Here are five tips for keeping your pee wee player off the injured list:

Be Sure He’s Ready. Before age 6, most children lack the motor skills, balance and attention span for football. By age 10 or 12, most are physically and cognitively ready, but parents should still be careful, Dr. Khabie says. For example, some 10- to 12-year-olds may be starting puberty, which can make a big difference (pubescent boys will be taller, heavier and stronger, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be better football players). Growth spurts can temporarily affect coordination, balance and athletic ability, which can also make a child seem more or less ready for football.

Gear up. Make sure your child is using the right protective gear: pads (neck, shoulder, elbow, chest, knee, and shin), helmets, mouthpieces, face guards and the rest. Be sure the equipment is in good condition and worn correctly, every time he plays. Poorly fitting equipment will be uncomfortable and may not offer the best protection.

Pick the best program. Enroll your child in an organized program that’s committed to injury prevention. Coaches should be trained in first aid and CPR, be well versed in the proper use of equipment and enforce rules on safety.

Condition young muscles. Build your child’s strength and flexibility with conditioning and stretching exercises. Make warm-ups and cool-downs part of his routine, before and after every practice and game. This can help minimize the chance of muscle strain or other soft tissue injury during sports.

Remember: Practice makes perfect. Children should learn and practice essential skills, such as tackling or blocking, and follow proper safety precautions every time they step onto the field, Dr. Khabie says. Statistics show that the majority of organized sports-related injuries occur during practice, but one-third of parents don’t have their children take the same safety precautions at practice that they do on game days.

Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. http://www.somersortho.com

VICTOR KHABIE, M.D., F.A.A.O.S., F.A.C.S., is a board certified orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist.

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Melissa Chefec
MCPR, LLC
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