Dr. John DiFiori, chief of sports medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, and a physician for UCLA’s sports teams, remembers a similar case: a 10-year-old boy who came to his office complaining of pain in his knee. DiFiori learned that the boy had been playing soccer nearly nonstop, multiple games and practices each week, for two years. In the previous year he had just two weeks off from the sport. DiFiori diagnosed a growth-plate injury and recommended that the boy take a lengthy break. His father, who was also his coach, was angered nearly to the point of ignoring the doctor’s orders. “He kept asking, Why does he have to stop playing?” says DiFiori.
The father’s combativeness underscores a point that too many parents seem to forget: Children need someone to look out for them, because they can’t always look out for themselves. “You have a kid who is not capable intellectually of understanding the situation, and a parent who is insisting on [continuing behavior that led to] an injury,” DiFiori says. “Some people would have viewed it as child abuse.” Luckily, the boy’s mother approved of the treatment, and within a year her son had fully recovered. (She later sent DiFiori an e-mail apologizing for her husband’s behavior.)
These misguided priorities are evident even in parents who understand the medical risks they’re taking on behalf of their kids. “I had a physician’s family come in,” says Micheli. “The mother was an emergency-room doctor. Her son had Little League elbow, which I operated on. The first question out of her mouth in the recovery room was, ‘When do you think he can play again?’ Not, ‘How did the surgery go?’ Or, ‘How’s the elbow going to be?’ The loss of perspective was amazing.”
My experience echoes the examples sited in the article from Sports Illustrated. I am endlessly amazed by the number of kids who “are the best on team” that I see on a weekly basis. They follow with “… the team can’t win without him/her….” or ” … the coach insists that you clear them to return to sports.”
Most sports docs see potentially devastating pediatric overuse sports injuries on a weekly basis. We spend the time to educate the parents about the diagnosis and why it is so important to treat it appropriately —and what we usually hear in return is “when can my child return to sports, he has a game tonight !!!!”
Who is looking out for the pediatric athlete? The coach…typically not, the parents… sometimes yes, many times, no… the trainers… nope— it is frequently left up to the orthopedic surgeon or pediatrician. This puts us in a very difficult position and will frequently end with the parents taking the child to another physician who may offer a differing opinion.
Overuse injuries are easily avoided and treated… but parents need to be willing to look past their desire to parent the next Tiger Woods. Otherwise the consequences could be devastating.