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Play now, pay later: Inside the rising injuries of youth sports

NEW YORK (PIX11) - Over 4.5 million children play youth sports every year. Many of them have dreams of someday playing in the big leagues. 3.5 million get injured each year and for some that dream ends too soon. Those injuries are up by 60 percent for baseball and football alone over the last decade.

“Baseball, that’s everything, that’s my pride and joy, that’s my childhood.” Peter Guzman, 20, used to be a star pitcher. He says he could throw up to 88 miles-an-hour when he was just 15.

Child Sports

Kyle Gribbins, 18, also grew up loving America’s pastime, “Baseball for a good part of my life was probably the most important thing.”

After giving so much to the game, they didn’t get what they wanted in return.

“First I had a partial torn ligament on my right elbow, and the physical therapist said just keep working out,” Guzman described.  So, he did what he was told, worked on strengthening his arm.

Baseball

“Six months later, I got a second opinion and by doing all this, now it’s completely torn, it was completely off the bone,” Guzman remembered.

Gribbins had a similar experience, “At the time of my injury I was 16, I was actually pitching better than I ever had before. I heard a pop in my elbow and I just kind of felt it, it tore immediately.”

The first doctor told him it was just a sprain so he proceeded to do physical therapy. “I realized it wasn’t getting any better so I went to a different doctor and he told me immediately, yeah there’s definitely a tear.”

That doctor was Dr. David Altchek, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital For Special Surgery. “It’s the only sport that loads one ligament every time to almost the maximum the ligament can withstand,” he explains.

Guzman and Gribbins have more than just the game they love in common. They both have torn their ulnar collateral ligament, also known as the Tommy John injury.

The injury is a tear between the ulna (lower) and the humerus (upper) bones. When this ligament tears you can see it very easily on an MRI. “You can see the lower half of the ligament has [a] thick black healthy structure then you see this big tear right through it and the fluid all around it from the tear.”

“it was just a sharp pain, sharp pain I used to feel” Guzman described. “It was actually hard for me to squeeze anything or lift anything up with my right arm.”

While dozens of MLB players have come back from this injury, kid’s aren’t as lucky. When a kid gets hurt different because a kid’s body is underdeveloped and unfinished.

“When the injury occurs before the growth plates are closed the treatment of the injury is much more complex and the results are clearly not as good,” Dr. Altchek said.

Despite having this surgery Guzman felt like he could never throw the same. “I just wanted my arm back.”

“I had an era under 1, I had thrown over 100 innings though so I think that that’s where it was that it started leading into issues,” Gribbins remembered.

Issues that youth leagues are trying to prevent by monitoring pitchers more closely. “You want to keep the pitch count down, maybe around 50 or 60” Mel Soto, coach for the Brentwood travel baseball league explained. “I don’t let my pitchers throw a curveball, until maybe 16.” He also stressed the importance of resting between outings.

Guzman’s dream ended five years ago, when he was just 15. “It was heartbreaking, because year after year this is what I trained for, pretty much 6-7 days a week.”

As for 18 year-old Gribbins, “I mean getting hurt cost me form going away to Vermont.” He still is trying though. He takes pitching lessons with former MLB player Neil Heaton, plays for a college prep league and plans to be a part of the Farmingdale State College team next season.

So, while baseball players need to mainly take care of their arms, football need to worry about their heads.

Nearly 150,00  youth football players suffered a concussion last year. That number is double from a decade ago. Another startling statistic is that over 50 percent of high school athletes won’t even report feeling concussion-like symptoms.

7 year-old Chris Davis plays quarterback for the Bronx Warriors football league and loves being a part of the action. “My favorite part about playing is the contact, “ he said.

Football

“Over the last 10-15 years there’s been a glorification at a higher level of the big hit,” Carl Banks, former NFL player and two-time Super Bowl champion described.

A new study by the Institute of Medicine found that high school football players sustain twice as many concussions that college players. It’s not just more concussions though, it’s more dangerous too.

“What’s interesting about concussions is that it’s the only injury where kids take longer to heal than adults,” Dr. Barry Kosofsky explained. He is the chief of pediatric neurology at the Komansky Center for Children’s Health at New York Presbyterian. He added, “It takes a full 25 years for the brain to fully mature.”

251_3689 (24:37) “I feel excited, I feel just really pumped up”

Another study published by researchers at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences found that 7-year-olds who play football sustain hits to the head comparable to those in high school and college. Dr. Kosofsky explains that it’s not how big or fast the person it is, it’s how a child’s body is designed. “The problem with the kids is when they hit because their heads are so big and their necks are so weak there’s greater movement of the head on the body.” He added, “that [motion] causes torsion and that’s what traumatic brain injury is. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury.”

The Institute of Medicine recently found that at least 20 percent of athletes who have suffered a concussion will have symptoms that last longer than two weeks.

Dr. Kosofsky added, “There are differences in genetic predisposition and there are differences of who gets hit where and how hard.”

Banks recalled his time playing football. “I had one concussion in my entire 12 year career.” He added, “What they would consider a concussion then and what they consider a concussion now it may be a different story.”

The two-time Super Bowl champion credits good coaching from a young age for coming out of the most dangerous sport with minimal injuries.

Jay Johnson, coach for the Bronx Warrior Football league, believes the responsibility for a child’s safety lies with several different people. “Safety starts at home in terms of buying the right equipment,” he said. “We [coaches] try to emphasize not leading with the head, not face masking, spearing or anything like that…good solid play.”

To ensure player safety, the league has a doctor on the sidelines at every game. “There’s specific screening protocol specifically for concussions for example cloudy judgment do they know where they’re at, loss of consciousness.” He adds that is if that happens, “Kids will go out, out for the entire game and looked at by a neurologist.”

Despite all the studies and information, some parents don’t think it’s really that dangerous. “I’m not worried, kids can get hurt in any sport, it’s not just in football.” A different parent felt the same way, “I’m not concerned whatsoever.”

What should be concerning though are the potential long-term effects of repetitive hits to the head. The Centers for Disease Control found that NFL players are four times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease Parkinson’s disease or ALS. Research has also linked the degenerative brain disease, CTE, and contact sports

So, as you watch professional athletes take the big hits and throw pitch after pitch, you might want to ask whether the dream for athletic perfection today is too much for the athletes of tomorrow.

MINIMIZING THE RISK:

For baseball players with dreams of pitching in the big leagues. There are ways to minimize the risk of eventually developing the Tommy John injury, Dr. Altchek said the first step is getting on shoulder maintenance program. He explained that the elbow injury comes after the should become fatigued. When the shoulder becomes fatigued, the elbow starts doing even more work, causing more stress and more damage. Dr. Altchek added that every pitcher needs to get enough rest. This is very important for the body, specifically the arm, to recover. He believes at least three days is necessary after pitching in a game but said that number goes up with the number of pitches thrown in a game. The third and final tip is to not throw in showcases when you’re out of condition. While, many athletes believe that might be the one time they get noticed by a college coach or team scout, Dr. Altchek said it is not worth the risk. Dr. Altchek said, “I don’t have any scientific numbers but I can almost guarantee your injury incidents will go down by 50 percent and that’s pretty significant.”

MINIMIZING THE RISK:

On the football side leagues at every level have made changes over the past year trying to curb concussions. Pop Warner, the nation’s largest and oldest youth football league, has now limited the amount of time contact drills can be done in practices. Teams can no longer exceed one-third of practice time or 40 minutes total. The organization has also outlawed any full-speed head-on blocking or tackling drills when players are lined up more than three yards apart.  The NCAA passed a new rule stating a players who target and contact defenseless opponents above the shoulders must be ejected. In the NFL, well, they’ve recently settled a lawsuit for $765 million filed by more than 4,500 players and their families. Those plaintiffs claimed the NFL concealed what it knew about the dangers of repeated hits to the head. The league has banned helmet-to-helmet hits, with a penalty of 15 yards for violations. Moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line led to a decrease in 2011 of the numbers of concussions reported.

Produced by: Kim Pestalozzi

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