Study: Higher Injury Rates for Athletes Who Specialize In One Sport

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If parents ever needed more reasons to persuade their kids to play several sports, a new study provides a good one – high school athletes who specialize in a single sport sustain lower-extremity injuries at significantly higher rates than athletes who do not specialize in one sport. 

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The research, which was conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and funded by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Foundation, observed more than 1,500 student-athletes, equally divided between boys and girls, throughout the 2015-16 school year at 29 high schools in Wisconsin.

Athletes who focused on one sport were twice as likely (46 percent) to report previously sustaining injury as those who did not specialize (24 percent). The former group of athletes also sustained 60 percent more new lower-extremity injuries, defined as any acute, gradual, recurrent or repetitive-use injury to the lower musculoskeletal system, during the study.

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“While we have long believed that sport specialization by high school athletes leads to an increased risk of overuse injury, this study confirms those beliefs about the potential risks of sport specialization,” Bob Gardner, NFHS executive director, said. “Coaches, parents and student-athletes need to be aware of the injury risks involved with an overemphasis in a single sport.”

What makes the injuries worse may be the explosion of club programs in a variety of sports. According to the Wisconsin study’s figures, roughly 50 percent of the student athletes who specialize in a sport also compete on a club team in that sport, with some 15 percent doing so simultaneously.

The areas of the body that were injured the most were the ankle (43 percent) and the knee (23 percent); the most common type of repeated injuries are ligament (51 percent) and tendon (20 percent) strains.

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Shockingly, and also alarmingly, tendonitis made up more than a fifth of all new injuries. Tendonitis in athletes can be attributed to stress from overuse. Teenage athletes should not be experiencing overuse problems.

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In addition, specialized athletes were twice as likely to sustain a gradual onset/repetitive-use injury than athletes who did not specialize, and those who specialized were more likely to sustain an injury even when controlling for gender, grade, previous injury status and sport.

Soccer had the highest level of specialization for both males (45 percent) and females (49 percent). After soccer, the rate of specialization for females was highest for softball (45 percent), volleyball (43 percent) and basketball (37 percent). The top specialization sports for males after soccer were basketball (37 percent), tennis (33 percent) and wrestling (29 percent).

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