Common Sports Injuries and How to Prevent Them

Young soccer player is injured during a match

SDI Productions / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Playing sports is an integral part of many children's lives. While team and individual sports have many benefits, they don't come free of risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of the 7 million sports and recreation-related injuries that occur each year are sustained by youth between ages 5 and 24.

It's no surprise that kids suffer their fair share of injuries. Their bodies are still developing, which can affect their coordination. Lower extremity injuries are more common (42%) than upper extremity injuries (30%), per the CDC.

"Younger and younger children are focusing on sports specialization in a single given sport, rather than cross-training, which may predispose them to more overuse injuries than we have previously seen," says Natasha Trentacosta, MD, pediatric and adult sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. While any injury is possible, there are a few injuries that most often result from participating in youth sports.

What Are the Most Common Sports Injuries in Kids? 

All sports carry a risk of getting hurt and although there are things you can do to help prevent injuries, it’s impossible to protect your child from all of them. Injuries usually vary by sport, but pediatrician Kelly Fradin, MD, FAAP says the most common injuries she sees in kids are skinned knees and abrasions, followed by sprains. 

"When you start to consider injuries by sports, the types of injuries usually reflect the demand of the particular game," Dr. Trentacosta explains. "For instance, within soccer, we tend to see more injuries to the ankles and knees, like ankle sprains and ACL tears. With swimming, the shoulders are recruited heavily and tend to get injured more often, often from overuse."

These injuries are fairly minor, she adds, but may require days or even weeks to recover fully. Let's take a look at the most common sports injuries in kids.

Ankle Sprains

When the ankle’s supportive ligaments stretch and tear, it can cause a sprain. This is typical when someone is running, jumping, or changing direction quickly, such as while playing basketball, netball, or soccer.

"Children tend to have more ligamentous laxity, meaning that their ligaments which hold their bones together are stretchier and looser. This makes their ankles, as well as other joints in their body, looser," Dr. Trentacosta explains, leading to ankle injuries such as a sprain.

ACL Injury

An ACL injury involves the anterior cruciate ligament, or the stabilizing ligament of the knee. The most common type of ACL injury in kids is a complete ACL tear, which often occurs at the same time as other injuries, like a torn meniscus.

"An ACL tear most often presents from a non-contact injury when an athlete’s knee twists when pivoting, changing direction, or landing from a jump, or hyperextends," says Dr. Trentacosta. It can also occur from a hit to the knee from another player or object, she adds. The child may hear or feel a “pop” in the knee at the time of tearing, and the knee often swells up, making walking and fully bending and straightening the knee difficult.

Concussion

Concussions can occur in all sports but are most common in football, hockey, rugby, soccer, and basketball. These brain injuries are caused by an impact to the head and can result in serious complications.

According to a CDC study, youth tackle football athletes ages 6 to 14 suffered 15 times more head impacts during a game or practice than flag football athletes, plus 23 times more hard head impacts.

Knee Pain

Knee pain is often caused by runner’s knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome) or Osgood-Schlatter disease, a condition that occurs just below the knee joint from overuse of the growth plate. "Knee pain after playing sports can be the result of acute trauma or overuse, related to either tracking of the kneecap or tightness in the quadriceps muscles," says Dr. Trentacosta.

Little League Injuries 

Little League elbow is an overuse injury to the elbow caused by repetitive throwing. Although it's most common in pitchers, any young athlete who throws a lot can suffer from it.

Like Little League elbow, Little League shoulder happens when an athlete's repetitive throwing—or throwing with a poor technique—causes pain or discomfort in the shoulder. Young athletes have soft growth plates toward the end of the bone, which can become inflamed with overuse.

Shin Splints

Shin splints are another common sports injury. Technically, shin splints is known as medial tibial stress syndrome. This injury affects the outer edge of the shin bone, causing inflammation, and is common in athletes who run a lot.

Vertebral Stress Fractures

Known as spondylolysis, vertebral stress fractures occur in the backbone, resulting in back pain during and after triggering activities, such as running, dancing, gymnastics, and basketball.

How Can You Prevent Sports Injuries? 

Prevention is key, especially when it comes to sports injuries. By taking just a few preventative measures, you can reduce the likelihood of your child getting injured on the field.

Use Proper Safety Equipment

Dr. Trentacosta recommends following basic safety rules and properly using safety equipment to minimize the risk of accidents and injuries. For instance, proper tackle techniques and helmet equipment can help prevent concussion injuries in football players. Your child's coach and a quick Google search can help you determine exactly what your child needs for their respective sport, be it a helmet, knee pads, or a mouthguard.

Complete a Pre-Season Assessment

Your child should see their pediatrician or a sports physician prior to the start of the season. "This is an opportunity for them to assess weak areas and seek guidance from trainers or therapists to prepare for the season," Dr. Trentacosta says. A sports physical is typically required before your child can participate in the sport.

Cross Training

One of the biggest problems Dr. Trentacosta sees as a pediatric sports physician is the lack of cross-training in young children.

"A child may play on three or four different soccer teams all year round with their respective seasons overlapping each other," she explains. "This had led to an increase in overuse injuries in younger and younger children. I encourage your child to play a variety of sports to avoid overuse injuries on their growing bodies. It is also important to remember that those growing bodies need rest."

Stretching

Flexibility is very important for children as they hit their growth spurts in early adolescence. "[Children's] bones tend to grow quicker than their tendons and muscles can stretch out, so they are left with a relative inflexibility in their joints quickly around [puberty]," says Dr. Trentacosta. This places more stress on their growing bodies and can lead to overuse injuries around their joints such as the knee and ankle, she adds.

What Do I Do If My Child Gets a Sports Injury?

If your child is injured while playing sports, start by making your child feel comfortable, which may require icing and wrapping an injured limb or cleaning a wound. "It also may mean that if your child is a baseball pitcher, for example, and has been having pain with throwing, that child should stop pitching and throwing," says Dr. Trentacosta. 

Remember the acronym RICE, which stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Taking these simple steps after a strain, sprain, or another similar injury can help your child's recovery.

Depending on the severity of an injury, you may need to see a medical professional shortly after they sustain the injury. "If your child fell while running the bases and has a deformed limb or is limping, it is better to go to an emergency room or urgent care center to have X-rays taken that day," Dr. Trentacosta says. "The pitcher who has pain with throwing should see a sports physician, but not necessarily immediately."

If you aren't confident in your assessment or treatment of your child's seemingly mild injury, it's best to seek out medical treatment. "Sometimes a jammed finger isn’t a jammed finger—it can be a fracture, which is best treated sooner rather than later," explains Dr. Trentacosta. Deep cuts or lacerations may require sutures, and those need to be seen in a timely manner, too.  

If your child is refusing to walk, use a limb, or has a bad headache, these are signs you should get a medical evaluation, says Dr. Fradin. After a head injury, a change in vision, attention, or behavior may be subtle signs of a concussion and warrant a discussion with a physician.

"Another thing I would often look for is their ability to move and feel their fingers and toes. If that's compromised, it may indicate a neurologic impairment and mean you should see a doctor," Dr. Fradin adds. She recommends having an ace bandage, an ice pack (although a pack of frozen vegetables does the same job), gauze, bandaids, and ibuprofen (Advil) for pain control in your child's first aid kit.

A Word From Verywell

Some common sports injuries in kids include ankle sprains, knee pain, and concussion. You can help prevent these by making sure your child stretches before and after exercise, uses the recommended safety equipment, and gets plenty of rest.

Sports injuries in children can often be treated with RICE (rest, ice, compression, evaluation). However, sometimes home treatment isn't enough, and your child will need to see a healthcare provider.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Protect the ones you love. Sports Injuries.

  2. National Health Statistics Reports. Sports- and Recreation-related Injury Episodes in the United States, 2011–2014. Nov. 18, 2016.

  3. Boston Children's Hospital. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.

  4. Waltzman D et al. Head Impact Exposures Among Youth Tackle and Flag American Football Athletes. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 2021 Feb. doi: 10.1177/1941738121992324

  5. Boston Children's Hospital. What Is Little League Shoulder?