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Young Athletes and Sports Injuries

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  • Written By: Joshua Alpert, MD
Young Athletes and Sports Injuries

Americans love sports, not only as spectators, but also as participants, whether their activity is part of a wellness routine or a rough-and-tumble game of backyard football. No matter the level of activity, injuries are still possible.

Dr. Joshua Alpert, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with the Fox Valley Orthopedics who practices at Sherman Hospital in Elgin, says that 75 percent of his patients visit because of sports-related injuries.

“I’ve seen patients as young as 8 years old with ACL tears in their knees,” says Alpert, who was fellowship trained in sports medicine at Harvard University. “These cases are much more complicated than they are in adults, because these children are still growing.”

In instances of ACL tears in children under 10, Alpert says he generally recommends physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles around the knee, as well as a knee brace to help with stability. These patients are then monitored and advised not to participate in active sports until they are old enough to safely consider ACL surgery.

When performing standard ACL surgical reconstruction, it is necessary to drill through the bone, Alpert says. In children with significant growth remaining, this would mean drilling through the growth plate, which can lead to future problems.

“There are a few special techniques in which drilling can be performed while avoiding the growth plate,” Alpert says. “In some instances, the reconstruction of the new ACL may need to be placed in a different position than it is normally found. The main risk of performing surgery in this manner is a re-tear at a later age. After about the age of 15, adolescents are usually treated in the same way as adults.”

But knees aren’t the only joints that can be injured during sports or other activities. Alpert says that, although elbow injuries are relatively rare, he does see young patients who have broken their elbows in contact sports or falls. Injuries are usually treated with a short-term cast, followed by bracing, and a course of physical therapy.

“Many young people are participating in high-level throwing sports at a young age,” Alpert says. “This can commonly lead to elbow pain due to overuse. Often this is the result of throwing too many pitches or not taking enough time off between days of throwing. This can lead to elbow pain and soreness, and with severe injuries, cause a tear to one of the ligaments in the inside of the elbow, commonly called the ‘Tommy John Ligament.’”

Ankles and feet are also at risk during sports activities. Ankle sprains are fairly common, resulting in pain, swelling and difficulty in bearing weight. After the ankle is X-rayed to ensure there are no broken bones, patients are treated with a support brace and physical therapy. Alpert says it takes three to six weeks for an ankle sprain to heal, depending on the severity.

“I also see patients in their 20s and 30s who have Achilles tendon injuries,” Alpert adds. “They may be running and suddenly feel as if someone has kicked them in the heel. They hear a little pop with pain in the back of the ankle.”

Another fairly common sports-related foot injury involves the pinkie bone in the foot, or the fifth metatarsal, which can break when the foot lands too hard or unevenly.

“This bone usually breaks at the base of the bone, closer to the heel,” Alpert says. “That area of the foot has a very poor blood supply, making it more prone to breaking. The patient usually is treated in a boot, while the bone heels, for four to six weeks. For young athletes who plan to play basketball or volleyball, we can surgically repair the bone with screws, in order to enhance the chances of it healing and return them to their high-level sport.”

No one wants to face a lifetime of pain, or dread an intensive surgery to fix an injury. Thanks to steady breakthroughs in surgical and nonsurgical treatments, young athletes are getting back to their favorite sports, while older adults are retaining their active lifestyles, and living longer than ever before.

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Joshua Alpert, M.D. is a board certified orthopedic surgeon, fellowship trained in sports medicine and arthroscopy at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard. As an active member of the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, Dr. Alpert treats individuals of all ages. He is a physician with Fox Valley Orthopedics, which has served the Chicago area for over 30 years. He may be reached at 847-931-5300.