Medical Minute: Youth Sports Epidemic

MINOT, N.D. - The growing push to get youngsters in sports ahead of the pack is raising concerns about the long-term implications on the health of the athletes. Some, in fact, are calling the recent increase in youth sports injuries an epidemic.

According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, shoulder and elbow injuries in youth softball and baseball players have gone up by 500% since the year 2000.

Some experts say the reason for this spike isn't because athletes aren't training enough, but because they're training too much at an early age.

Minot State senior athlete Aaron Bernal is no stranger to Tommy John surgery.

“My first surgery wasn't until right after my freshman year in college. The second time, I was actually 10 months post-op from my first one,” Bernal said.

Bernal made baseball his primary year-round sport at the age of 10 and was under the knife for Tommy John before he turned 20.

“The real confusing part is that, in fact, when athletes do specialize early, they do get better at that sport. The trouble is down the road, something has to give, and that's the problem we're starting to see in athletes specializing in that sport early,” said Caleb Heilman, MSU Human Performance director.

More and more research is beginning to show a link between early specialization in sports and overuse, with career-altering injuries down the line.

Now the son of the baseball player from which the procedure gets its namesake is using this philosophy to keep youth athletes off the operating table.

“When you compete more than eight months a year, research shows a 70 to 90 percent increase; it's the single greatest risk factor in injury when you specialize early at the age of 18,” said Dr. Tommy John, Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine.

If the numbers don't convince you, John says to think about some of these real life "late-bloomers."

“The Tillmans, the Urlachers, the Kobes, the Jeters, the Bradys. The one's that struggled, did exactly how you're supposed to, and were also very gifted genetically,” he says.

John and Heilman agree, the youth sports culture needs to change and it starts with parents and coaches.

For more information on John's research and philosophy, you can visit his website: minimizeinjurymaximizeperformance.com