Parents who encourage their child’s high-level, year-round participation in a specific sport – perhaps with dreams of a professional career or college scholarship – need to consider the potential long-term harm. Studies have shown that childhood sports injuries can place the child on the road to future osteoarthritis, or OA.

ACL and Meniscus Tears on the Rise

Physicians at one Philadelphia hospital found a significant increase in certain knee injuries in young athletes in the past decade. They looked at tears of the anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, and the meniscus from 1999 to 2011 in athletes younger than 18. The increase in ACL and meniscus tears was more than four times higher in the last three years of the study compared to the first three years, says lead author J. Todd Lawrence, MD, PhD, an orthopaedic surgeon and pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He presented the results of the study in October at the annual conference of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  

Although the exact cause of this growth in sports-related injuries is unclear, he says, “The high-level, year-round, young-age specialized sports competition has been cited as one cause for the increase.”

Other research also has linked youth sports to OA.

In a recent issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, researchers noted that approximately 27 million children and adolescents in the United States participate regularly in team sports, with millions more involved in individual sports. The study authors reported that the trend is increased participation, increased duration and intensity of training, earlier specialization and year-round training. These sports are linked to OA, the authors wrote.

A Swedish study, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2007, found that 10 to 20 years after an ACL or meniscus tear, 50 percent of patients have OA with attendant disability and pain.

Dr. Lawrence believes his study and others suggest that parents, players and their coaches need to discuss options. For example, neuromuscular training would help players learn techniques like a safe way to land from a jump. With practice, athletes can automatically position their bodies to land properly.