Age Matters: Treating Sports Injuries Requires a Thoughtful Approach
Depending on the age of the athlete, the treatment, the location and even the type of common injuries like ACL and rotator cuff tears may be completely different.
"Kids get different injuries from adults," explains Dr. Alison Brooks, a UW Health Sports Medicine physician. "Their skeletons are growing and changing. So how we look at treating an ACL tear and other injuries is often quite different in children than in adults."
When a young athlete suffers an injury, it's likely to occur at growth plates - sites in the body where bones, muscles and tendons are stretching to fit their growing and developing environment. Examples of this type of injury include:
- Little League elbow
- Sever's Disease (heel)
- Osgood Schlatter disease (knee)
Younger athletes are more likely to suffer an acute injury - a ligament tear, a broken bone - that occurs during a sporting event or as the result of a serious accident. They're also not immune from suffering an overuse injury, the type that can come from specializing in a single sport and failing to rest and recover.
In all cases, physicians will consider the age and physical maturity of the athlete when making recommendations for treatment.
"When you suffer a serious sports injury when you're 16 or 20, you may still have 60-70 years that you need to use that knee or shoulder," says Brooks. "Early surgical options may be very important. A 50-60 year old may suffer a different kind of injury that may not need to be treated operatively."
"It's actually quite concerning for me to see an ACL tear or another serious injury in a teenage athlete," she says. "An injury at that age, can be devastating and significantly affect health and quality of life as an adult."
At the other end of the age spectrum, older athletes may not suffer the same type or severity of injuries as their younger counterparts, but one thing is quite clear: In increasing numbers, they're demanding the same kind of care.
"We used to say that we treated athletes ages 15-40," says Dr. James Keene, an UW Health Orthopedic surgeon and Sports Medicine physician. "Now we see athletes ages 15-80. Patients who received treatment for their sports injuries in their twenties remember how they were treated, and they don't want to be treated differently now."
According to Keene, older athletes are likely to see a higher incidence of knee problems (especially meniscus tears), rotator cuff injuries and tendonitis in their Achilles tendons. Some of these injuries are due to simple aging, but increasingly, many are coming from an active lifestyle that includes everything from gardening to training for a triathlon.
"The biggest difference we see is that an older person has more joints that hurt," says Keene. "A younger person will come in for a specific problem, where an older patient might have knee and hip pain and need help with both."
While advancements in surgical techniques are allowing some of these older knees, shoulders and hips to be repaired, Keene says it's important to be cautious and carefully balance each patient's needs. For instance, a patient with a meniscus tear won't automatically be recommended for surgery - unless he or she also has joint line tenderness.
Patients whose lifestyle, condition and motivation qualify them for surgery, however, are finding the same benefit enjoyed by athletes 30 years their juniors.
"These patients tried to get back to their activities and couldn't," says Keene. "When we reconstruct their ligaments and they can, these are the happiest people you'll find."
UW Health Services