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Specializing in One Sport Too Early Can Lead to More Injuries, Study Reports

Update Date: Apr 22, 2013 10:53 AM EDT

Athletes, ranging from beginners to professionals, tend to participate in numerous sports before specializing in one. Some of the most popular athletes today, such as baseball player Alex Rodriguez and basketball star Lebron James, excelled in sports that they did not end up choosing to specialize in. However, more and more children and teenagers have started to pick and focus on perfecting one sport as opposed to playing in multiple ones. Although early specialization might seem to be advantageous for aspiring athletes, a new study reports that sticking to one sport early on in life can lead to multiple injuries, such as stress fractures.

"We should be cautious about intense specialization in one sport before and during adolescence," said Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, study's researcher and sports medicine specialist from Loyola University Medical Center. "Among the recommendations we can make, based on our findings, is that young athletes should not spend more hours per week in organized sports than their ages." 

Jayanthi and his colleagues looked at the data set of 1,206 young athletes from the ages of eight to 18. These athletes all sought medical treatment between 2010 and 2013 from the Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago for sports related injuries and physical checkups. The researchers rated the children on a six-point scale to get a better picture of each athlete's level of specialization. Each point was given for factors such as devoting over 75 percent of training time to one particular sport or training over eight months per year in one sport. The higher the score, the more time and effort the athlete spent in one sport. The researchers also looked at the rates in which children left other sports in order to focus on one.

The research team recorded 859 injuries with 564 of them attributed to overuse injuries, which included stress fractures in the back and limbs, elbow ligament tears, and joint cartilage and bone injuries, known as osteochondral injuries. The researchers concluded that athletes who were injured scored an average of 3.3 on the 6-point scale in comparison to the uninjured athletes' score of 2.7. The researchers noted that athletes who suffered from an injury spent roughly 21 hours per week participating in some form of physical activity.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, in 2010, over 3.5 million children under 15-years-old had to be treated for some sports-related injury. Based from their findings, the researchers believe that children should avoid specializing in sports too early because the repetitive training in one sport might place too much stress on certain areas of the body, and repeated stress can cause painful and sidling injuries.

The findings were presented at the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine meeting in San Diego, CA. 

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