TAMPA — A team of University of South Florida researchers has been working the sidelines at high school sports events, documenting every sprain, strain and tear.
Two years into this state-funded effort, their findings defy some long-held beliefs about youth sports injuries. Data from the last year indicate that:
• We may complain about being out in the rain, but injuries happen most frequently on warmer days in which surface conditions are mostly dry.
• While athletes may go all-out on game day, injuries during practice can be just as severe and common.
• Maybe experience should help protect athletes, but in truth, high school seniors are more likely to get hurt than underclassmen.
To gather this data, USF's Sports Medicine and Athletic Related Trauma Institute (SMART) dispatched certified athletic trainers to 10 high schools in Hillsborough County. The goal was to learn more about injury patterns, so that coaches and educators can better prevent them.
"It's easy to say a sport is dangerous but until you actually have proof — that with exposure to the sport, there are specific injuries that rise to a level of concern — you really can't go out on a limb and make recommendations for change," said Jeff Konin, the institute's executive director.
Where does it hurt?
The effort is rooted in tragic lessons about the dangers of youth athletics. In 2006, the back-to-back deaths of two young football players startled the Tampa Bay region, as have prior deaths involving youth athletics.
Concerned state lawmakers looked to USF to learn more about the risk factors for youth athletes. Florida has lacked a comprehensive injury surveillance registry for high school sports. Although it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations from the Hillsborough findings, they offer a window into the injuries occurring in sports played here.
Researchers share the information with coaches, players and educators throughout the community and report annually to the Legislature and the Florida High School Athletic Association. USF also plans to disseminate its data to the larger medical community at meetings and in journals.
Their work goes beyond predictable findings. Sure, football has the highest injury rates. But last year, USF's trainers also identified the most dangerous position: linebacker, followed by defensive tackle and running back.
Researchers also took note when girls flag football, a relatively new sport, ranked second behind the gridiron guys in last year's practice injury rates. That's just one year of data; it will take several more to determine whether flag football truly involves some high-risk plays, or if it just saw a one-time spike. And the injuries mostly involved relatively minor concerns like muscle strains, such as pulled hamstrings.
"One sport I'm really interested in, to tell you the truth, is cheerleading, which is now a sport. There seems to be problems with their stunt work and their landing," said USF's Karen Liller, who has analyzed the data. She is the dean of the graduate school and a professor of public health.
"Do they have the best equipment? Are they landing on the right surfaces?" she said, noting a lot of lower back and hip injuries. "There's a lot about the environment that you need to get into."
In girls soccer, for example, researchers documented last year that the body part injured most often was the right knee.
In boys basketball, sprains and strains were the leading types of injuries. The body parts most injured were ankles and wrists.
The left thumb was the leading injury site for volleyball, although the numbers involved were small.
At the participating Hillsborough schools, the athletic trainers provide constant feedback about the injury reports to the coaches, who can use the information as they see fit.
In some cases, new practices already have been enacted.
When the Gaither High football players pile off the field — hot, sweaty and sore — they're not allowed to head home without a mandatory health check: hitting the digital scale in the training room.
USF athletic trainer Vicki Kean makes sure that each boy weighs in before and after each practice session as a guard against heat injuries in the punishing August heat. Their weights are recorded in a laptop, which automatically computes how many pounds were lost that day.
A sign taped above the scale reminds the players to drink 20 to 24 ounces of water or sports drinks for every pound of weight (16 ounces) sweated off.
Kean documents and responds as best she can to injuries at competitions for every sport played at Gaither. She also attends football practices, because that's the riskiest prep sport. Athletes frequently seek out her assistance stretching and icing down.
During a recent football practice, sophomore Nate Ellis-Williams found her on the sidelines between drills.
"Hey, Vicki, my heart's racing on me," he said.
"You're running, aren't you? Probably, you're just feeling it," Kean replied, looking him up and down. "Have you been hydrating today?"
"I drank a lot of water today," the player said. "Maybe I shouldn't have ate all that candy."
Kean agreed, an amused smile on her face.
Still, she kept an eye on Ellis-Williams for the rest of the practice, just in case. With youth athletes, it pays to play it safe.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.