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Football Injury Prevention, September 17, 2013

Sports medicine specialist Dr. Scott Levin offers young players tips for preventing football related injuries.

For many years, the number of student athletes playing football at the high school level has far surpassed the number of participants in any other sport. During the 2012-2013 season, more than 1.1 million boys played tackle football and 8,600 girls played tackle or flag football at the high school level, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. And USA Football estimates that there are 3 million youth football players, age 6-14, in the United States. 

"Football is a highly physical sport that combines contact and speed," says Dr. Scott Levin, orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist with Somers Orthopaedic Sugery & Sports Medicine Group. "With more than 4 million young players, it isn't surprising that football is responsible for more injuries than other sports. The good news is that attentiveness to football injury prevention is the primary priority for everyone involved in the sport and with improved standards for play and practice, better protective equipment and conscientious player conditioning, young players can reduce their risk of getting hurt and minimize the severity of injuries that do occur."

Overuse injuries do occur in football but traumatic injuries are more prevalent, typically caused by the force of being brought down or of attempting to bring another player down. While head injuries are the most worrisome, the most common injuries are contusions (bruises) followed by ligament sprains. The lower extremities suffer the most injuries, particularly the ligaments and cartilage of the knee and the ankle. Shoulder injuries are also common, particularly in offensive and defensive linemen. "Everyone involved in football – players, parents, coaches, trainers, officials, maintenance staff – has an important role in preventing injury," says Dr. Levin. "Here are some of the highest-priority strategies for safeguarding the health and well-being of young players."

Conditioning • Stay active during the summer and have a physical examination to ensure readiness to play. The exam should include an orthopaedic evaluation focusing on neck strength, joint range of motion, flexibility and any misalignments or imbalances that might make the player more vulnerable to injury.• Maintain condition year-round with proper nutrition and a program that focuses on anaerobic and cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, range of motion and muscle strength, power and endurance.• Four to six weeks before practice begins, step up the program with professionally supervised exercises to improve flexibility and strength, particularly in the neck, shoulders and upper back, which will enable holding the head firmly when blocking and tackling and reduce the risk of injury to the spine.

Play and Practice • Always warm up before practice or a game, starting with light aerobic activity to raise the heart rate and warm up the muscles, followed by slow and gentle stretching.• Take frequent water breaks to prevent overheating and dehydration, particularly during summer practices.• Master fundamental football skills and injury prevention techniques, most notably always making contact with the head up and never blocking and tackling with the top of the helmet.• Never play through pain, report all injuries, even minor ones, comply with treatment and rehabilitation regimens and get medical clearance before returning to the field.

Equipment • All equipment should be the safest available, in good repair and should be individually fitted for each player.• All helmets should meet safety standards set by the National Operating Committee on Standards in Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE).• In addition to knee pads, shoulder pads, hip pads and thigh guards, players should wear properly sized mouth protectors and shatter-proof eyeglasses.

"It is inevitable that there will be injuries in football," says Dr. Levin. "The first step in preventing them and minimizing their severity is for parents and athletes to be well informed and diligent in following best practices. Parents, who know their child best, should be actively involved and ensure that the child is not pushing himself beyond safe limits."

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