PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Youth sports are a whole different ballgame from when most parents were in school.
Now, a new study out of Loyola University shows lower back injuries are the third most common injury after knee and ankle injuries in athletes under 18.
Stephanie Vigliotti of the North Hills injured her back playing high school basketball.
Basketball is in her genes, she and her four sisters all play. However, a back injury in a game she played for Oakland Catholic sidelined Stephanie for months. She said the injury was extremely painful.
“It was like an automatic, really sharp pain in the lower left side of my back. And then after that I felt really stiff and it was hard for me to even walk,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie and her mom, Patrice, were shocked that she was diagnosed with a broken bone in her lower back.
“We were devastated,” Patrice said. “There were a lot of tears because she was really excelling and really starting to progress as a junior.”
After six weeks of rest, Stephanie began 10 weeks of physical therapy with Ben Read at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine.
Her doctor, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Sisk, says he’s been seeing more and more back injuries like Stephanie’s in young athletes. This now makes up 10 to 15 percent of his patients. He urges parents to see a doctor if a child’s feeling back pain more than a week or two.
“Red flags should be severe pain,” Sisk said. “I think that’s one thing you absolutely have to bring your child in for. Also, I think if this pain is steadily progressing, it was mild, as I described before, then it became moderate, ‘Hey, mom, this is still bothering me.'”
So what’s causing the increase in back injuries in young athletes? First, the musculoskeletal system is still developing and can’t handle what adult bodies can. Also, more time playing and specializing in a single sport increase the risk for a back injury.
Read says any sport where you have contact, or you are having to go into extreme enraged positions like twisting and bending is going to make you more susceptible to injury.
The even bigger question is, what can be done to prevent back injuries in young athletes?
The Loyola report recommends kids do not spend more hours per week than their age playing sports. Also, they shouldn’t specialize in one sport before late adolescence.
It’s recommended that kids take at least one day off per week from sports training and take a break from competition for one to three months a year, not necessarily consecutively. Dr. Sisk says if professional athletes do it, so should young athletes.
“I also think there’s a reason why professional athletes have an off season,” Dr. Sisk says, “because they do a sport nearly year-round and they need time to recover from wear and tear from that sport.”
Through her physical therapy, Stephanie has strengthened her core and learned how to protect her back — another recommendation for all athletes.
“I’m definitely more cautious now,” she said. “Before, I used to dive after every loose ball and everything, and now my mom’s always saying, ‘Don’t, be careful. Don’t dive for the ball. You don’t want to hurt yourself again,’ so I’m definitely more aware of what I do.”
The question still remains whether these kids will have lasting back problems into adulthood, but Dr. Sisk says that’s one more reason why it’s so important to get treatment and take a back injury seriously.