The unfortunate reality of youth sports is that injuries happen. Most of these are relatively minor things that get better with some rest and rehabilitation, but some injuries will be more severe and will require assistance from a number of professionals to get your child healthy again. There are three situations you may encounter.
First, there may be trauma during training or a game. For instance your football- playing son was tackled and landed hard on his wrist. He tells his coach and you that he felt something "pop", there was immediate swelling, and it is very painful to move. Your son needs to be evaluated immediately in the local emergency room or urgent care center.
The second scenario involves a relatively minor injury that happens early in a game or training session, but your child continues to play. Another injury to the same area happens and now the injury is worse. Your child should see a pediatrician or sports medicine specialist in the first few days after the injury.
And finally, there is the incredibly frustrating situation of ongoing annoying pain with sports that never seems to go away. The last situation will often need to be evaluated by a sports medicine specialist for proper diagnosis, rehabilitation, and conditioning.
When The Injury Happens, Get Your Child Healthy
One of the most important things to do at the time of injury is to resist the idea of having your child "tough it out" and keep on playing. I can't tell you how many times I've heard an athlete tell me that they attempted to continue playing after the initial injury, only to get a second injury making the original injury far worse. If you suspect your child has been hurt, your coach should pull the child from the practice or game.
Not all coaches are properly trained in injury management, and our company called Sideline Sports Doc provides training for coaches to help them with these decisions http://sidelinesportsdoc.com. An injured young athlete will not help the team with poor play, and can risk serious injury to him/herself by making the injury worse. Keep your child's long-term health in mind and don't allow return to play too soon. For most mild or moderate injuries, you'll want to use the old standby called RICE- Rest, Ice, Compression (ace wrap), and Elevation.
All Suspected Concussions Must Be Evaluated By A Physician
Let's be clear about one thing: all suspected concussions should be evaluated by a physician skilled in sports concussion management. A concussion is an alteration in brain function that occurs from contact. There is very reliable evidence that indicates that any athlete with a concussion needs to be removed from the practice or game, should not play again that day, and must be evaluated for return to play by a physician.
If you would like to learn more about how to recognize whether a concussion has occurred on the field you can download a free PDF and mp3 from Sideline Sports Doc http://sidelinesportsdoc.com. A properly managed concussion will usually allow for safe return to play in a few days after injury.
Should Your Child See A Physician or Sports Medicine Specialist For Other Injuries?
Many mild injuries will improve after a few days of RICE. The safest time to return to play is when the young athlete is pain free, with no swelling, and normal motion and strength. In throwing sports there should be a normal throwing motion and power; for running sports there should be normal speed for sprinting, cutting, and jumping.
A physician or sports medicine specialist should evaluate your child if there is persistent pain, swelling, or difficulty with daily activities. Each child will respond differently to an injury. Some will magnify even the most minor injury and others will hide the pain in order to try and continue playing. You need to be an advocate for your child's health- take any complaints seriously, be cautious, and let a professional make the evaluation and determination of safe return to play.
Two organizations with members specifically trained in treating athletes are the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine www.sportsmed.org, and the American College of Sports Medicine www.acsm.org. The links can take you to a "find a doctor" section, where you can then find a specialist in your local area.
Putting all of the injury information together will allow the doctor to come up with an individualized treatment plan. The plan can include rehabilitation, equipment modification, bracing, casts, and sometimes surgery. The doctor should clearly communicate the plan and expected outcome to you and your child. The physician can also communicate important points to a physical therapist or athletic trainer, if needed.
Dealing with Psychological Issues
There's never a good time to be injured. With many sports we are dealing with an almost year-round schedule, even in cold winter climates. So, no matter when in the "season" the injury occurs, something in your child's sport schedule will be missed. My advice to athletes I'm treating is to try and "let it go", and understand that an injury occurred, understand that treatment will almost always get him/her successfully back to play, and understand that it will take some time to get back. It's normal to be upset, especially if the injury will involve treatment with surgery and extensive rehabilitation. Most athletes will get over their initial feelings and get on with the task of getting healed. Some athletes, however, have significant difficulties coping psychologically with an injury. If your child is feeling overwhelmed by the injury, or just having a hard time dealing with it, be certain to let the treating doctor know as help is available for that too.
Putting it All Together - How Long Until Your Child Can Play Again?
If your child needed to see a physician for an injury there will be certain phases of recovery before he/she gets back into play. The first phase is treatment to heal the injured area, which can take days or weeks depending on the injury. For an ankle sprain this may involve a brace and crutches. For a broken foot or ankle there may be a cast placed on the leg. For a torn ACL in the knee, surgery is usually needed.
Once the treatment for the injury has started the next phase of recovery begins. This will often involve referral to a qualified physical therapist. The physical therapist is highly trained in techniques to restore function of the injured part, develop a plan for sport-specific training, suggest continued equipment modification such as bracing, and continue communication with the player, family, physician, and trainer. For many injuries, we've learned over the years that early involvement by a physical therapist speeds up return to play.
After those first two phases, your child still might not be ready for return to sport, especially for elite level competitive sports. Let's say your child had a significant ankle sprain. She was treated in a brace for 2-4 weeks, and then she started getting some movement skills back for another 2-4 weeks. Now we're up to 4-8 weeks from the time of your injury, and you know what she hasn't been doing- practicing or playing her sport. Getting match fit will take a few more weeks (or even months, if she's been out a long time).
My advice with any injury is to take the proper time to heal it and recover from the start. It's far better to take a few days or a week to heal a minor injury than to keep playing and risk another injury that causes your child to miss the season