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The Most Common Football Injuries for Kids

Did you know that youth football logs the highest percentage of sports injuries among kids? With football pre-season training underway, coaches, trainers, and parents should be aware of these common football injuries in kids, and how to prevent and treat them.

Fractures In Football

Clavicle (collarbone) fractures are common, but the joints on either side of the clavicle can fracture as well. These joints have ligaments that can also be injured playing football. A CT scan is done to correctly diagnose these fractures and tears.

  • A shoulder separation is typically from a hard fall or hard direct hit, or from lifting heavy weights. The athlete will complain of tenderness and swelling and limited range of motion without discomfort.

Depending on the level of injury, treatment may be non-surgical (ice, immobilization, and physical therapy) or surgical ligament reconstruction with a soft tissue graft. 

  • The joint that connects the arms to body can dislocate from a hard collision. The dislocation can be, either anteriorly (toward the front) or posteriorly (toward the back).
    • In an anterior dislocation, the clavicle moves in front of the sternum (the T-shaped bone that connects the ribs). This is generally treated conservatively with immobilization, manipulation, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
    • The more serious posterior dislocation moves the clavicle behind the sternum and could damage the trachea, esophagus, and major blood vessels, causing shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, or restrict blood flow. Treatment is a ligament reconstruction. A thoracic vascular surgeon must be present during surgery because of the blood vessel involvement.

Torn ACL In Football

If a young athlete complains of a non-contact twisting injury, pain when bearing weight, and a popping sensation in the knee, this is likely a torn ACL. A pediatric orthopedic exam is the key to diagnosing an ACL tear.

There is always concern about the best way to treat ACL tears in children because of their growth plates. It is crucial to avoid drilling through and harming the growth plates, as this can cause growth disturbance or deformity. For that reason, pediatric orthopedists used to wait until the child was fully grown (mid-teens) to perform ACL surgery, as bracing alone doesn’t prevent further injury. 

However, with innovations in ACL surgical procedures, we can get kids into the OR earlier for better treatment and good outcomes. We wrote in a previous post about how the less-invasive BEAR implants have changed the way we treat ACL tears in children and teens. 

Physical therapy is a crucial part of recovery from ACL surgery. Expect a minimum of six to nine months to regain full strength and return to the football field.

Head Injuries In Football

Concussion is the most common head injury. Signs (which may not present right away) may include headache, dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, drowsiness, numbness/tingling, difficulty concentrating, and blurry vision. Our pediatric orthopedists will prescribe physical and mental rest (such as limiting screen time, from playing video games to watching TV, reading, or school work).  Limiting these activities helps the child avoid any kind of exertion and promotes healing. 

A study for the NIH showed that elbow-to-head contact is the most frequent mechanism in football head injuries, followed by head-to-head contact. Therefore, working on tackle form and modifying use of elbows will help reduce the chance of head injury while playing football. Head injuries in football also include whiplash caused by direct impact to the head and neck.

Hand Injuries in Football

Two common hand injuries in football happen to the fingers are mallet finger and jersey finger.

In mallet finger, the fingertip is forced down and cannot extend. This is typically treated non-surgically by extending the finger and stabilizing it with a splint for six to eight weeks. Surgery is rarely needed unless the bone slips forward or if the tendon is severed.

Jersey finger occurs when the finger (usually the ring finger) is pulled up when the football player tries to grab an opponent’s jersey. The finger gets unexpectedly straightened as it is still trying to flex and grip, causing the flexor tendon (which bends down the fingertip) to rupture. A piece of bone may also be torn away. The athlete cannot bend the fingertip and experiences pain and swelling. Treatment may require surgery to reattach the tendon, repair the bony structure if needed, and restore the fingertip’s ability to bend. Recovery may take several months.

Elbow Injuries in Football

The elbow joint is comprised of three bones (ulna, radius, humerus), supported by ligaments and muscles that are often injured in football. Elbow injuries result from a fall or hard twist, and in throwing arms due to overuse. An acute elbow injury may bring sharp pain or a popping sensation; a gradually worsening injury may hurt only with certain motions or progressive weakness or stiffness in the joint.

A pediatric orthopedist will do a careful examination and test the athlete’s range of extension and flexion, check for pain with movement, and perform strength testing of the surrounding muscles and ligaments. An X-ray, MRI, or ultrasound may be needed to determine the severity of the injury and treatment options. Mild sprains and strains will need rest and anti-inflammatory medication, and perhaps some physical therapy. An elbow brace may be prescribed, as well. A muscle or ligament tear may require surgery.

How to Avoid the Most Common Football Injuries: Best Stretches to Prevent Sports Injury

Stretches and warmup exercises are essential to avoiding common football injuries. 

  • The most beneficial exercises are functional and weight training exercises that work on legs and the core, targeted stretching of leg ligaments, and muscle strengthening.
    • Warmup exercises before training or a game improve readiness for contact, prepare muscles for movement, and increase tissue temperature which improves circulation.
    • We recommend six to eight weeks of pre-season strength and functional training. 
    • Off-season strengthening for any athlete improves physical condition and sports readiness.
  • Boosting technical skills also helps prevent football injury; these include landing mechanics that work on shock absorption, jump training with dynamic warmups, and improved throwing form.
  • Don’t over-exercise young athletes – choose quality over quantity for safe peak conditioning.
  • Have your child become a multi-sport athlete. Avoiding sports specialization at a young age prevents overuse of (and injury to) certain muscle groups.

When to see a doctor for football injuries: Pediatric Orthopedic Treatment In NJ

A young athlete should see a pediatric orthopedic physician at the first sign of any football injuries to the head, shoulder, or any joints. Concussions, tissue damage, or fractures are all dangerous if left untreated. Even sprains should be looked at. Pain and swelling, difficulty bearing weight on the leg, and limited range of motion of arms and legs are signals to seek pediatric orthopedic treatment.  

At The Pediatric Orthopedic Center in NJ, we specialize in orthopedic treatment for sports injuries and see student athletes who participate in all sports. Our NJ offices in Cedar Knolls, Jersey City, Springfield, and Wayne are gearing up for the common football injuries we treat every fall. We wish all our patients good luck (and health) on the gridiron this season!

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