High school football team in starting line formation

Dr. Czarnecki interviewed by Worcester Telegram on Fall Sports Injuries

High School Athletic Trainers on alert for injuries with start of Fall Sports

By Matthew Reid / mreid@gatehousemedia.com

Posted Aug 30, 2019 at 7:00 PM

Jennifer Sturtevant and her colleagues often joke that once mid-August rolls around, their social lives take a serious hit.

That’s because for Sturtevant, an athletic training and wellness coordinator for MelroseWakefield Healthcare who serves as a trainer for multiple high schools on the North Shore, the end of summer is when student football players get back to practice, leading to a slew of injuries to treat. Things only get worse when other fall sports teams return to action and injuries start to pile up.

More children go to the emergency room for sports-related injuries in September than at any other time of the year, according to an analysis of two decades of hospital data by GateHouse Media.

Football accounts for more than half of all sports-related visits in September for patients younger than 18. ER trips due to soccer and volleyball injuries also peak that month.

The numbers come from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database run by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for more than four decades. About 100 hospitals from around the country participate, sending detailed data about a broad spectrum of ER visits to the commission.

“For sure, September is the start of our busiest season,” Sturtevant said. “You have kids coming back from a long summer, and while some might have trained, others may have had jobs or just spent a few months having fun. When they jump back into sports, it can lead to more and more injuries.”

MelroseWakefield Healthcare contracts with six area high schools for trainers to be on site at schools on a daily basis for practices and games. Trainers provide both injury prevention as well as acute care for injuries that occur on the field.

“We have to be prepared for anything and everything,” Sturtevant said. “There are many different types of injuries we look out for.”

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Czarnecki works for Woburn-based Excel Orthopedic Specialists and MelroseWakefield Hospital. He said so many injuries occur as students go back to school that Excel opens up a special Monday evening sports clinic to handle overflow cases.

It offers same-day evaluation, stitching, braces, casts, X-rays and more on site.

“Football is a big contributor to what we see, but it’s not uncommon this time of year to see any number of both contact and non-contact injuries,” Czarnecki said. “If kids are out of practice it’s easy for them to jam a finger doing something as simple as catching a ball. We see a lot of cross-country runners getting shin splints and soccer players (especially girls) suffering ACL sprains. We see injuries of all types.”

Risks of concussion

Perhaps the most discussed type of sports injury, from peewee leagues all the way to the professional ranks, is a concussion.

“There has been a marked increase in the awareness of concussions and head injuries in recent years,” Czarnecki said. “These were not always appreciated as being traumatic brain injuries in the past, but with the information we have now, and with awareness by parents, coaches, trainers and even students, we are seeing more attention given to treating head injuries.”

According to the data examined, football tends to have high concussion rates among high school athletes. Other high-contact sports such as ice hockey and wrestling had even higher concussion rates.

Still, “every sport is safe if the right things are followed,” said Ali Flury, sports safety program manager for Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent childhood injury. “You do your pre-participation physical, you do your warmup and stretch routine every single day, you drink water, you wear the appropriate equipment.”

Emergency room physicians say they are encouraged to see more young athletes asking questions about concussions and overuse injuries.

“Parents are much more aware of the risks in playing contact sports, and about the nature of head injuries, and this is being discussed more in the open,” Sturtevant said. “As a trainer, I might assess 20 to 30 head injuries throughout the year across all sports. But there is a system in place now, between parents and trainers and the physicians who treat student athletes. I think parents really appreciate that there are so many people looking out for their kids and monitoring their recovery throughout the whole process.”

A shifting mindset

Czarnecki said the culture around sports can play a big role in injuries and treatment, with football being a good example.

“It is seen as the ultimate team sport,” he said. “Players want so much to be a part of the team, and not let their teammates down. That’s why they might underreport injuries to a trainer or brush it off to get back out onto the field.”

He said there is also a trend of more athletes using sports to get scholarships or help them get into college, which leads to added pressures to push themselves to succeed.

“Another trend we are seeing more and more of now is single-sport specialization, where before students might play three different sports during the year and play sports over the summer,” Czarnecki said. “When you practice and play the same sport year-round, you are activating specific muscle groups, which could lead to areas of the body breaking down faster.”

Czarnecki said new regulations, such as limiting the number of practices football teams can have over the summer, can help.

Sturtevant has seen firsthand how putting prevention first can help reduce the number of cases.

“Coming back from the summer, it’s important to remind coaches and players the importance of proper warm-up routines, about starting slow and progressively increasing the intensity of practices, things like that,” she said. “Trainers can’t be on every field all at once, so it’s important to be smart about things and not push too hard.”

—GateHouse Media national enterprise reporter Daphne Chen contributed to this report