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What is a Pediatric Sports Medicine Specialist?

If your child or teen has an injury or illness that affects sports performance, exercise, or activity, a pediatric sports medicine specialist has the expertise, experience, and qualifications to treat his or her youth specific problems.

In growing children, injuries and medical problems in the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joints (ie, musculoskeletal conditions) often are quite different from conditions more commonly seen in older patients. Special training and experience in pediatric sports medicine allows these specialists to appropriately treat the unique sports-related medical needs of children and teens.

Pediatric sports medicine training

Pediatric sports medicine specialists must have 4 years of medical school and 3 years of training in pediatrics. They also must have 1 to 2 years of training in sports medicine. Plus, they have to earn a Certification of Added Qualification through the American Academy of Pediatrics.

These healthcare providers know that children are not “small adults.” They understand that the body of a child or teen is still developing and needs a different approach to treatment.

Why consider a pediatric sports medicine specialist

More than 2.6 million children are seen each year in the emergency room for injuries from sports and recreation. Pediatric sports medicine specialists not only treat these injuries. But they also tell parents how to help prevent them from occurring again.

Some children and teens may find it hard to talk about what’s going on with their body. Pediatric sports medicine specialists are trained to treat children. They know how to work with young athletes and put them at ease. Their offices are also often designed with young patients in mind. For small children, for instance, they usually offer toys and games that may not be found in regular healthcare providers’ offices.

The differences between pediatric and adult patients

Many differences exist between pediatric and adult patients. These differences become evident when comparing an X-ray of a child’s bone to an adult’s bone. Pediatric patients have some growth plates that do not close until they are 20 or 21 years old.  These open growth plates add length to the growing bone but are often considered the “weak link in the chain.”

For example, in adults, overuse injuries typically lead to tendonitis. However, children with open growth plates are more likely to suffer from apophysitis (irritation of a growth plate) such as Osgood-Schlatter or Sever’s apophysitis. Similarly, adults may sprain their ankle when they roll or twist it, but children may suffer a fracture at or near the growth plate. Additionally, these growth plates may be injured if not treated appropriately by physicians who specialize in conservative and surgical management of these conditions. 

The growth spurt

As children reach adolescence, they go through a growth spurt. During this period of time, athletes are often becoming more active in their sport but are also at an increased risk of injury. As children grow, their bones often grow first, which means their muscles and tendons tighten over the lengthened bone. This causes them to become more inflexible and also predisposes them to injury. A pediatric sports medicine physician is trained in the identification of these imbalances and factors that may increase the risk of injury. They can also provide valuable advice and education on injury prevention for your growing athlete.

Fueling up

Growing athletes have different nutrition, rest and activity progression needs than adult athletes. In order to prevent injuries, growing athletes should vary their physical activities. For example, studies have shown that baseball pitchers who are still growing should have 2-4 months off per year from all throwing activities in order to decrease the risk of injury. Similarly, athletes who pitch more than 100 innings per year are 3.5 times more likely to have an injury(1). It is important that your pediatric sports medicine physician is knowledgeable about the unique changes that occur in a growing athlete, in order to keep your athlete healthy and safe.

Pediatric sports medicine physicians should also work with a board-certified sports dietitian to help young athletes perform their best, reduce injury risk and maintain optimal health. A sports dietitian provides research-backed guidance on pre- and post-activity nutrition, customized diets for medical concerns, getting enough nutrients, fueling while travelling and much more. Sports dietitians have extra training and certification working specifically in sports nutrition.

Keeping it fun

Keeping sports fun should be the primary focus for young athletes. In order to achieve this goal, youth athletes should not participate in an organized sport more hours a week than their age. For example, a 15 year-old soccer player should only have 15 hours or less per week of organized sports. However, they can get outside and participate in as much free-play as they want.

When to see a pediatric sports medicine specialist

These specialists treat common sports injuries in young athletes. These include:

  • Sprains
  • Strains
  • Fractures
  • Dislocations
  • Injuries to ligaments

They may also treat serious problems such as:

  • Tendonitis and other overuse injuries
  • Injuries to growth plates
  • Damage to the shock-absorbing cartilage
  • Concussions
  • Concerns about nutrition or sports supplement use
  • Heat illnesses
  • Care of an athlete with special needs

Plus, pediatric sports medicine specialists can help with almost any kind of pain. They can help with physical limitations that are making it hard for a child to enjoy sports or exercise. They also have expertise with conditions that could affect a young athlete’s performance, such as:

  • Exercise-induced asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Eating disorders

These healthcare providers work in places like children’s hospitals, private clinics, and sports medicine clinics. You might need a referral from your child’s primary healthcare provider to see one of these specialists. Make sure you know what your health insurance plan needs before you set up a visit.

Pediatric sports medicine specialists – the best care for children and teens

Children and teens are not just small adults. They cannot always say what is bothering them. They cannot always answer medical questions, and are not always able to be patient and helpful during a medical examination. Pediatric sports medicine specialists know how to examine and treat children and teens in a way that makes them relaxed and cooperative. They arrange their offices with children and teens in mind. They may have toys, videos, and reading materials for young people available. Pediatric sports medicine specialists are trained and equipped to examine, diagnose, and treat injuries and illnesses in active children and teens.

If your pediatrician suggests that your child or teen see a pediatric sports medicine specialist, you can be assured that he or she has a wide range of treatment options, extensive training, and expertise in dealing with children and teens and in treating sports medicine problems.