Study: Specialized athletes suffer more lower-extremity injuries

A new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin has found that specialized athletes suffer more lower-extremity injuries than those who play multiple sports.

The study, published last week by The American Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at athletes in grades nine through 12 from 29 Wisconsin high schools. To determine whether athletes specialized, researchers asked three questions:

  • Have you quit one sport to focus on another?
  • Do you consider your primary sport more important?
  • Do you train more than eight months a year for your primary sport?

Students who answered yes to all three questions were considered highly specialized. Researchers asked athletic trainers to record injuries as they happened during games and practices, and they tracked about 1,500 players.

The study found that 15.2% of athletes who participated sustained a lower-extremity injury (LEI). Injuries occurred most often to the ankle (34.4%), knee (25.0%), and upper leg (12.7%) and included ligament sprains (40.9%), muscle/tendon strains (25.4%), and tendinitis/tenosynovitis (19.6%).

From NPR:

“We found that kids who had higher levels of specialization were at about a 50 percent greater risk of having an injury,” said study author Timothy McGuine, a senior scientist and research coordinator at the University of Wisconsin Health Sports Medicine Center. The injuries McGuine and his colleagues noted included ankle sprains, knee tendonitis, and stress fractures.

That group recommends several measures to prevent burnout and injury including “avoiding overscheduling and excessive time commitments.”

As a rule of thumb, McGuine says, kids should limit the number of hours they participate in organized sports each week to the number of years they’ve been alive — or less. “So a 10-year-old should not play or practice more than 10 hours a week,” he said.

A study conducted earlier this year by Emory Sports Medicine similarly concluded that athletes who specialize before age 12 are at a greater risk of injury. Despite the overwhelming research, athletes continue to specialize in hopes of improving their chances of earning a college athletic scholarship. 

Click here for more on the University of Wisconsin study.

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