For athletes, even young athletes, a sports injury is something that can have a life-long impact, especially if athletes rush to return to play and take shortcuts during the recovery process. If not treated properly, injuries may lead to years of decreased mobility, weakness, pain, and other issues that impact both their participation in sport, and their quality of life. If not managed properly, pain can also lead to more serious issues, as seen from the accounts of high school superstars and promising young athletes whose lives have been lost or threatened after a prescription pain medication for a sports injury spiraled into an addiction.
That’s why a treatment plan specific to the athlete, the injury, the stage of pain, and the recovery progress is critical.
While pain medications, including non-opioid and opioid medications, may be appropriate to treat acute pain, it’s important to know that non-pharmacological pain management measures should also be considered from the very beginning as part of your young athlete’s treatment plan. Below are four ways your athlete can manage subacute and chronic pain during the recovery process:
According to an International Olympic Committee consensus statement on pain management in elite athletes, physical therapy is an important treatment in most cases of sports injury. Physical therapists can play an important role in identifying sources of pain, while also providing therapy that helps increase strength, build endurance, and correct biomechanical issues.
“While most youth sports injuries will heal in a short period of time with simple RICE treatment, physical therapy is often helpful in correcting underlying problems that may have caused the injury to occur,” explain Dr. Gary Green. “Some examples are lack of flexibility, muscle imbalance, and poor biomechanics that have all been associated with injuries.”
“A good physical therapist not only helps reduce recovery time, but can also provide exercises and training suggestions to prevent re-injury. The challenge for physicians is to find the underlying cause and correct it because prevention is always better than treatment and sports injuries are no exception.”
Strength Training and Stretching
Recognizing that exercise and movement may help reduce pain, the IOC statement also points out that strength training is an effective recovery method after a sports injury. More specifically, exercise and conditioning can help the body produce anti-inflammatory effects and reduce feelings of pain.
Dr. Green also notes, “Stretching and strength training are part of any sports participation. Of course, these need to be age and sport specific. For example, stretching is very important in young athletes, especially those going through intense growth spurts. During those times, the bones often grow too fast for the tendons and muscles to adapt and this can lead to classic syndromes such as Osgood-Schlatter in the knee and Sever’s disease in the ankle.”
“Controlled stretching can help prevent these syndromes and alleviate pain. Strength training has been recently recognized for young athletes, but needs to closely supervised. The goals of strength training for most kids should be to ensure proper lifting techniques with relatively low weights and a high number of repetitions per exercise.”
When recovering from a sports injury, it may also be necessary for athletes to try psychosocial interventions or cognitive–behavioral therapies (CBTs), such as relaxation, goal setting, and positive affirmations. It’s important for parents and coaches to remember that environmental factors and mental health issues impact recovery.
Psychological strategies can start immediately after injury in order to manage pain through body control and coping strategies, while also helping to identify athlete’s worries and address those concerns. Stress inoculation training, for example, was shown to “reduce anxiety, pain and days to recovery after arthroscopic surgery for meniscus injury,” according to the IOC statement.
Sleep and Nutrition
Sleep is extremely important for young athletes and may even decrease the likelihood of injury. One study highlighted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that adolescent athletes who slept at least eight hours each night were almost 70 percent less likely to be injured than young athletes who slept less. Unfortunately, sleep and pain are reciprocally connected during the recovery process because pain disrupts sleep and poor sleep increases pain. If sleep becomes a problem, the IOC consensus statement recommends CBT, stress reduction, and other psychological strategies that have demonstrated potential for improving sleep.
Nutrition is also key to recovery, but parents should keep in mind that supplements are not the answer. Dietary supplements are very risky because the industry is poorly regulated, meaning that no organization approves products before they reach consumers, and there are many examples of supplements that have been contaminated with dangerous ingredients that aren’t even listed on the label. In most cases, athletes can get the nutrients they need from a balanced diet.
Dr. Gary Green is board-certified in sports medicine and clinical professor in the UCLA Division of Sports Medicine. He is the medical director for Major League Baseball and has a practice in Pacific Palisades, California. He also serves on the Scientific Board of the Partnership for Clean Competition.