Injuries caused by overuse, including back or limb stress fractures, elbow ligament injuries, and osteochondral injuries, have the potential to sideline an athlete for more than six weeks. Since a young athlete’s body is still developing, they are at an increased risk for suffering an injury compared to adults. Researchers from Loyola University Medical Center have concluded a study that reveals young athletes from high-income backgrounds are significantly more likely to suffer an overuse injury compared to low-income athletes.

"Intense specialization in one sport can cost thousands of dollars a year in equipment, fees, transportation, private lessons, etc.," lead researcher and medical director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at Loyola, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, said in a statement. "Having the financial resources to afford such costs may provide increased opportunities for young athletes to participate in a single sport."

Jayanthi and his colleagues from the university recruited 1,190 athletes between the ages of 7 and 18 who were treated by primary care and sports medicine clinics at Loyola University Health System and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. The research team was able to determine the insurance status of 1,121 young athletes from a diverse population of socioeconomic backgrounds. Each participant was asked to report on their volume of training, the age they began competing in competitive sports, and the sport they concentrated on the most.

The average income of the families included in this ongoing study was estimated at $70,000. Eleven percent of the young athletes hailed from what were considered low-income neighborhoods. An additional 19 percent were enrolled in a public health insurance plan such as Medicaid. Eight percent of the athletes enrolled in public health insurance sustained a severe injury due to overuse compared to 13 percent of athletes with private insurance. Overall, athletes from families with private insurance are 68 percent more likely to suffer an injury due to overuse compared to athletes enrolled in a public insurance health plan.

"Young athletes with this type of training appear to be at greater risk for serious overuse injuries than those who have fewer financial resources," said Dr. Lara Dugas, co-investigator of the study and research assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at Loyola.

In discovering the root of this distinction between athletes enrolled in private and public insurance plans, researchers found a noticeable difference in the amount of hours that were devoted to free play. Publicly insured athletes participated in 7.1 hours of free play each week, while privately insured athletes participated in 5.2 hours each week. The research team concluded that athletes who spend more time on free play such as pickup basketball games and touch football are less likely to sustain an injury caused by overuse.

Jayanthi also offered recommendations for diminishing a young athlete’s risk of sustaining an injury based on the evidence produced by this collaborative study. Parents should encourage their child to participate in more unstructured free play compared to organized sports and specialized training. Young athletes should never spend more hours of sport per week than their age (i.e., 12-year-olds should not spend over 12 hours a week on sports). Children should also shop their options when it comes to playing sports before late adolescence and not try to specialize in one sport. Finally, take at least one day off from physical activity each week and limit the amount of time playing competitive sports each year to at least 10 months.

Source: Dugar L, Jayanthi N, Austin A, et al. Young athletes from higher income families more likely to suffer serious overuse injuries. International Olympic Committee World Conference on Prevention of Injury & Illness in Sport. 2014.