Francisco Metivier, a then-12-year-old running back, was racing with the ball to the goal line during football practice when a teammate hit him on the inside of the leg.
“I heard a pop, like a loud noise, and I just collapsed,” Francisco, now 14, recalled. “The pain was horrible. I couldn’t get up.”
Francisco ended up with a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, one of the four major ligaments of the knee, as well as a tear to the meniscus. Surgery at Miami Children’s Hospital to repair the damage was followed by a year of three-times-a-week rehabilitation. Now, three months after his last official physical therapy session, the eighth-grader at Doral Academy wears a knee brace and is back playing pick-up basketball with neighborhood friends.
His father, Rafael Metivier, said it was a difficult experience for the entire family. “I was really astounded at the length of recuperation. We were very fortunate he got such good care, but I think now we’ll have him play a less rude sport.”
Like Francisco, millions of kids get injured practicing or playing a sport. As more of them get involved with park-sponsored leagues, clubs and high school teams — 30 million at last count, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine — the greater likelihood that a young athlete will sustain an injury.
More than 3.5 million kids under age 14 receive some form of medical treatment for sports injuries each year. At the high school level, athletes account for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year.
“We’re seeing younger athletes who are pushing the limit of their bodies and their sport much more than what we saw 10 or 15 years ago,” said Dr. Craig Spurdle, orthopedic surgeon at Miami Children’s Hospital. “And we’re also seeing more kids doing this earlier and earlier.”
The result? Overuse injuries that doctors once saw only in adults are now more common among children. And this includes young athletes in every sport, from tennis to baseball.
Another trend that strains a young athlete’s immature bones and joints: More and more kids are also “specializing” in one sport instead of playing in several. In the past, an athlete would change sports with the season, playing football in the fall, say, then basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Now they’ll stick to one.
“Kids have become sport specific, and not just one sport but also position-specific” said Dr. John Zvijac of Doctors Hospital Center for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine. “Fewer and fewer are playing multiple positions and they’re the same muscles over and over.”
Repeated use of this kind can cause stress and lead to injury. Tony Millian, director of the U-18 Sports Medicine Program at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, said this is particularly evident in South Florida, where many kids will play their sport year around, without taking the necessary time to rest their muscles.
“We’re unique here in South Florida because of our weather,” he said. “Here, if kids play baseball, they play 12 months of the year.”
His employer, like other pediatric orthopedic specialties around the area, end up seeing “a lot of all those things that end in ‘-itis.’ And that ‘–itis’ means it’s inflammation and swelling and it’s from overuse.”