The number of running-related injuries suffered by American children and teenagers has increased dramatically, according to a study published in the February issue of the journal Clinical Pediatrics.
Between 1994 and 2007, running-related injuries suffered by youths ages 6 to 18 increased by 34 percent, according to the study conducted by researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
"The injuries that you see most are mainly just contusions and strains and sprains," said Edward Snell, director of the Primary Sports Medicine Fellowship at Allegheny General Hospital and the head team physician for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "Ankle sprains are the most common."
"The study was done in emergency rooms," noted Robin West, an orthopedic surgeon for UPMC Sports Medicine, and a marathon runner herself. "Emergency room injuries are a lot different from the injuries we see. One-third of the total injuries [in the study] were from falls. I see mostly overuse injuries."
Youngsters ages 6 to 14 were more likely to be injured as a result of a fall and while running at school, while teens ages 15 to 18 were more likely to be injured while running in the street or at a sports and recreation facility, the study said. It concluded that there is a need for scientific evidence-based guidelines for children in running sports and further research into the "high proportion of running-related falls."
Agreeing that running injuries have become more common, Dr. West said, "In my waiting room today most of the patients were high school age or younger."
But although the number of running injuries children suffer definitely has increased, the increase may not be as dramatic as the study indicates, Dr. Snell said. "It may be that our tracking systems are better now."
One big reason for the increase, he said, "is because we're trying to push kids into exercising more, and running is a very easy thing to do."
Dr. West said most of the running injuries she treats are overuse injuries such as tendonitis and shin splits. Among high school students, those most likely to suffer from overuse injuries are members of the cross-country team or the soccer team, she said.
"When I do see kids who have these overuse injuries, I urge them to branch out and try other sports that involve different muscles."
Dr. Snell agreed: "Usually what we tell kids to do is to cross train."
Long distances aren't recommended for younger runners. Children under high school age shouldn't run more than three miles at a time, Dr. West said.
"Their bones are still developing, and their cartilage is soft. So the repetitive impact activities are harder to withstand."
Dr. Snell recommended that young runners start out on a rubberized track or on grass and dirt, to minimize the stress caused by repetitive impact.
"The biggest thing to do is to start slow and easy. Then increase either distance or time."
But, he added, "it's difficult to get young kids to do it slow and easy. They want to jump into it right away."
Jack Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476.