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Smart athletes ride the bench when injured

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Q: My daughter was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her leg but she wants to do a mini-triathlon next week. She is determined to compete in this race. Is it dangerous for her to do the triathlon?

A: Whether it is a team sport, individual sport, contact or non-contact activity, injuries are par for the course. It is unusual for anyone to be physically active on a frequent basis without sustaining an injury at some point. Fortunately, most of us are lucky to have more mild injuries such as ankle sprains, bruises or a small muscle pull. More serious injuries such as stress fractures require a very specific treatment plan that will differ depending on the individual and severity of their injury. It is important that parents are fully informed about their child's condition so that wise choices are made for injury care.

Playing With Injury

Of course, injuries are not part of any athlete's training program. No active person is thrilled to be injured and unable to do their sport. In addition to personal disappointment, there are internal and external pressures to play with injuries even if full recovery has not occurred. Team sports often pose a difficult situation when an injured, talented player is needed in the line up and the team performance may suffer without their presence. The athlete may not admit the full extent of their symptoms just so they can play. There can be a fear of losing a spot on the team if they do not play. Coaches, parents and other teammates can also exert pressure to the injured athlete to play with an injury. Too often, parents and their athletic children ignore sport medicine treatment recommendations and children keep playing the sport injured because of upcoming play-offs or dance exams or shows.

Bad Decisions Have Consequences

It is risky to play sports with injuries. It is not a simple matter of more pain afterwards. The severity of the injury can change for the worse. Additional injuries are more likely to occur when you are already hurting. Injuries can easily be exacerbated if a return to sport is too soon. Some injuries have prolonged and even life-long effects, such as brain injury from concussion. There will always be more games in the future. However, you only have one body and you have to take care of it.

Setting the Wrong Example

There is a part of sport culture that encourages athletes to show how tough they are by playing with an injury. Athletes are led to believe that they are performing a great feat by making it through a game while injured. Media headlines often champion athletes who compete while hurt. The recent Olympic Games in London saw several athletes praised for competing while injured. The message communicated to young competitors is that you garner admiration when you suck it up and compete with an injury. In reality, young athletes are learning that neglecting your health is OK in order to win in sport.

The parents and athletes who take their health seriously are to be commended. They know that sport is for fun and put their health first. These athletes usually return to play earlier than those who choose to ignore their injury because they catch their injury at an early, less severe stage. Sometimes, sitting on the bench is the most courageous thing you can do.

Dr. Maureen Kennedy MD, CCFP, FCFP, Dip. Sport Med., is a Sport and Exercise Medicine Physician at the Sport MB-Sport Medicine Centre and the Reh-Fit Centre in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2012 C1

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