How to keep kids safe from common sports-related injuries

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While working up a sweat and building their skills, young athletes run the risk of suffering from the three H’s: head injuries (concussions), heat illnesses (heat stroke/illness) and heart problems (cardiac arrest). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2.6 million children under the age of 19 are treated in the nation’s emergency departments each year for sports- and recreation-related injuries.

University of Chicago Medicine sports medicine specialist Christopher Hicks, MD, cares for teenagers who are pursuing their athletic dreams, weekend warriors and professional athletes, including members of the WNBA Chicago Sky, where he’s one of the team’s physicians. Here’s his best advice to prevent and treat these common sports camp injuries.

What should a coach or parent know about the three H’s?

The most important things to know as a parent or coach are the risk factors along with the signs and symptoms of injuries. Have a low threshold for recognizing when your child/athlete isn’t themselves. As a parent or coach, you know your child/player better than anyone. And you play an important role in helping recognize these situations early.

The symptoms for the three H’s are probably quite different, what are the obvious symptoms for each?

Let’s start with head injuries and concussions. First, I want to be clear, you do not have to have a loss of consciousness in order to have a concussion. Due to the body’s ability to produce adrenaline, symptoms can be masked immediately after an injury. The most common immediate symptoms include: headaches, neck pain, dizziness, blurry vision, light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, ringing in the ears, disorientation and abnormal balance.

Next, let’s look at heart problems, like sudden cardiac arrest. What makes sudden cardiac death in our athletic population so difficult to manage is that there are typically no symptoms prior to the athlete collapsing.

And finally, there’s heat stroke/illness. Heat illness is a spectrum of heat-related medical conditions ranging from heat exhaustion to heat stroke. General signs and symptoms include dehydration, lightheadedness, increased muscle fatigue, nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, clumsiness, stumbling and disorientation.

For something like cardiac arrest, which doesn’t show obvious symptoms, what are the greatest risk factors that parents and coaches should be aware of?

The greatest risk factor for sudden cardiac death is having a family history of sudden cardiac death or sudden death of unknown cause in a first-degree relative, which means someone like a father, mother or sibling.

Besides wearing the proper protective gear, how can an athlete protect themselves from a concussion?

Proper technique – specifically tackling in rugby and football and headers in soccer – can help athletes protect themselves from head injuries. But beyond that, it’s really important for the athlete to be upfront and honest about their symptoms after a possible head injury. If they’re not, the athlete can put themselves at risk for something called second impact syndrome. That occurs when an athlete suffers a second head injury while still recovering (with continued lingering symptoms) from their first head injury. This can could cause diffuse cerebral swelling, brain herniation and even death. It’s potentially devastating for an otherwise young, healthy athlete.

In order to minimize dehydration and heat stroke, how often should an athlete eat and drink water?

General recommendations advise that athletes should eat a meal 2-3 hours prior to exercise/activities. Meals should be high in carbohydrates with a moderate amount of protein. They should generally be low in fat. A carbohydrate snack like an energy bar, granola bar or fruit can be eaten 30 min prior a workout. After an hour of activity, an athlete should eat a carbohydrate snack or drink.

We typically recommend using thirst as a guide for hydration during sports or athletic activities, particularly for our novice athletes. That helps decrease the risk of hyponatremia (low sodium levels) from consuming too much water. These recommendations are important to reduce the athletes’ risk of heat-related conditions. It also helps them maximize performance.

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Christopher Hicks, MD

Christopher Hicks, MD, is a board-certified orthopaedist who specializes in non-operative sports medicine and provides comprehensive medical care for athletes and active patients alike.

Read more about Dr. Hicks
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