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Study: Single-sport athletes are at a higher risk for injury

2013-12-07T21:30:00Z 2013-12-08T22:42:07Z Study: Single-sport athletes are at a higher risk for injuryHillary Smith hillary.smith@nwi.com, (219) 933-3233 nwitimes.com
December 07, 2013 9:30 pm  • 

Now that he's a part of the training staff at Eastern Illinois, Brandon Platt can talk with professional and personal experience about the dangers of repetitive stress injuries.

The pain in Platt's elbow began around age 10. It flared up as he played baseball at Munster High School, and then went away with the chill of fall when he stepped onto the football field as a long snapper.

He was always involved in one activity or another growing up. As a teenager, it never occurred to him that the variety of muscles used participating in multiple sports was the reason his elbow pain disappeared.

When Platt graduated high school in 2005 and earned a spot on the Franklin College baseball team, he stopped playing other sports. It wasn't long before the repetitive motion of throwing the ball from behind the plate to the pitcher's mound or second base flared the pain in his elbow again.

He was playing in a summer league after his freshman year when he was asked to pitch.

"I had caught a nine-inning game before and someone asked me to come in to relief to pitch," Platt said. "Now I can say it, that a doctor has told me that everyone has X number of pitches in their arm. You can push that number backward and forward through strengthening, but eventually you're going to reach that number, whatever it is. That's when the powers that be tell you it's time to stop playing."

That summer was the first time Platt stopped playing. While pitching in relief, he tore the ulna collateral ligament in his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. He was out of commission for 18 months. It was another year before he could play at 100 percent.

Then his junior year he tore his labrum. His baseball career over, Platt dedicated himself to his major: athletic training.

The era of specializing in a a single sport has shortened the careers of athletes, says a doctor at Loyola University whose research focuses on how concentrating on just one sport impacts young players.

In a paper presented to the American Academy of Pediatrics in October, Loyola medical director of primary care sports medicine Neeru Jayanthi said that lower back injuries are the third most common injury among young athletes, and it comes from overuse and specialization in sports.

Some of what helps athletes improve in college is playing multiple sports through high school, Jayanthi said.

"We did some of our research here at Loyola, and talked to our athletes about how much training they did 10 years prior to college, and found that most of them played two or more sports for most of their career," Jayanthi said. "There is a risk of sports specialization. It's healthy to be diversified, to unload the body of focusing on one group of muscles."

While football, soccer and cheerleading are blamed for concussions, baseball, volleyball and tennis are the culprits of repetitive stress to muscles in the shoulders, elbows and back, according to research.

"You're also seeing it more in soccer players, and a lot more lately of overuse problems in legs in soccer players where they'll get stress fractures because they never stop running," said John Doherty, an athletic trainer and physical therapist at Munster High School who writes a regular column for The Times. "Soccer players finish their high school season and go to indoor soccer then to spring league.

"As bad a rap as football is getting at the high school level, and some deservedly so with too much hitting ... but at least those guys get a break. Their body gets a break in the winter. Football players spend their winter and spring in the weight room and running, not the same motions as during the season.

"The day of the three-sport athlete is done and it's a shame."

Though head injuries have drawn more attention in the last five years as research continues into the long-term impact of concussions, the effects of sports specialization create different risks to athletes, Jayanthi found.

In a paper presented in May to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, Jayanthi's research noted that the risk of stress fractures are higher in athletes who specialize in a single sport.

"If you do more than twice as much organized sports than fun play, you are at a higher risk," Jayanthi said.

"Unstructured play" can help combat this, Jayanthi said, because of the use of other muscle groups.

In the case of Platt, his pain at age 10 flared up in his late teens because it didn't have time to rest.

As a rule, Jayanthi recommends that athletes not participate in organized sports for more hours in a week than they are old. For instance, a 13-year-old should spend no more than 13 hours on a single sport, an 8-year-old, no more than eight hours.

"There will always be the examples of a Tiger Woods, who dedicated a lot of time to a sport and became famous," Jayanthi said, "but what you don't see are all of the players who burned out trying to do the same thing."

Sports specialization, however, has been cited to help athletes secure scholarships and professional contracts.

Keeping athletes healthy means working those muscles in other ways off the playing field.

"These are the kinds of things that athletic trainers can look at and assess when they see it in players," said Audric Warren, athletic trainer at IU Northwest and former athletic trainer with the Gary RailCats minor league baseball team. "What an athletic trainer would usually recommend is functional training, or working on multiple planes of motion. ... With the RailCats, I'd usually recommend for them yoga. You're using your postural muscles and it helps with overall general flexibility."

Seven years after his injury, Platt says that he is seeing the results of studies like Jayanthi's put to use.

"At the collegiate level, we're already seeing an influx of the importance of prevention," Platt said. "It limits the incidents of tendonitis and rotator cuff tears."

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