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September 5, 2016

The ABCs of Sports Safety

by Amanda MacMillan

As kids head back to school this month, many of them are also heading back to the field, gym or court – the basketball or tennis court, that is. For many children and teens, sports are a huge part of the academic year, offering not just fun but the opportunity to get in shape, develop new skills and learn to work as part of a team. In all those ways, athletics are a win-win.

But playing a sport does carry some risk, as news stories about concussion and other dangers have driven home over the past few years. Fortunately, awareness and a few common-sense moves can make a big difference, says Randy Cohn, MD, sports medicine specialist at Northwell Health and associate team physician for the New York Cosmos soccer team. Whether your kids are going out for their first team or returning as varsity captain, here are four ways to keep them safe while they play the sports they love.

Remind them to stay hydrated in the heat

“Even though we’re in back-to-school season, we’re still going to have summer heat for the first month or so,” says Cohn. Hot, humid days are a particular concern for football players, since pads and other protective gear act as insulators, but anyone who’s running, jumping or otherwise exerting themselves needs to be careful.

“The most important thing for kids is to stay well hydrated and to take frequent water breaks,” Cohn says – before, during and after practice. Drinking plenty of water or sports drinks helps regulate the body’s internal temperature, and can help prevent heat illness or heat stroke.

Treat head injuries with caution

Any time a child takes a hit to the head, says Cohn, parents should be vigilant. “If they feel dizzy or have a headache or just don’t feel like themselves, this is something a medical doctor -- their pediatrician or a sports medicine specialist -- needs to evaluate to see if a concussion occurred,” he says.

Think you’re off the hook because your kid doesn’t play football? Think again. A number of other activities raise the risk of impact, too, Cohn says, like cheerleading and soccer. In fact, he says, the sport with the highest concussion rate at the collegiate and professional levels is women’s soccer.

If you’re told that your child has experienced a concussion, it’s crucial to allow plenty of recovery time. The brain needs rest. For kids, that may mean taking a break not only from sports, but also from mentally challenging tasks like taking tests and doing homework. (Speaking of rest, gone are the days when parents were advised to keep their child awake after a concussion, says Cohn. “We now know that the best thing for a head injury is a normal sleep-wake schedule.”)

Encourage warm-ups, cool-downs and skill-building

“Injuries happen when you don’t do things properly,” says Cohn. “Watching your favorite athlete on TV and then trying to mimic that on the field without proper training is a good way to hurt yourself.” That’s why it’s so important for kids to learn proper technique from their coaches, and to progress gradually in a new sport -- not dive in all at once.

Every practice should start with stretching and warm-ups, and end with a cool-down period. “That’s not because the coaches want to torture their athletes by making them run and doing boring drills,” Cohn says. “It’s because these exercises are shown to help warm up the muscles so they are able to undergo the intensity of whatever sport they’re about to play.”

When in doubt, see a doctor

Sometimes a problem is impossible to miss – your child complains of pain after a collision on the field, for instance. Other times, a sprain, strain, or even a broken bone doesn’t provide such obvious clues.

Don’t ignore issues that come on gradually and get worse over time. Encourage your child to have a possible injury checked out by a school trainer; if the pain is bad enough or doesn’t go away, get to a doctor or an urgent-care facility.

“We’re not saying every time a kid twists their ankle they need to run to the ER -- but if it’s not getting better, they have trouble putting weight on it or it’s turning black and blue, it should probably be evaluated by a professional,” says Cohn. “Otherwise, it can be hard to know when you should play through it and when it really needs to be rested and rehabbed in order to recover.”