Sleep-Deprived Young Athletes May Be More Prone to Sports Injuries

by Chris Centeno, MD /

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sports injuries in young athletes

A new school year is starting. If you’re like most parents, your teens have been on a summer sleep schedule that consists of staying up obnoxiously late and waking up just in time for lunch. However, now comes the massive disruption known as the first day of school. Growing bodies used to waking up at 11 a.m. will be forced by sheer parental will (and a bunch of screaming and yelling) to start getting up early. The first few weeks of school will produce armies of teen zombies walking around sleep deprived. Could that sleep deprivation have other consequences? Let’s look at a study that ties it to athletic injuries in young athletes

What’s Wrong With a Little Sleep Deprivation?

Sleep deprivation means not getting enough sleep at night. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can’t fully recharge our brain and re-energize our body, leading to fatigue during the day, the inability to focus, irritability, and so on. Chronic sleep deprivation has even been linked to issues such as heart disease, depression, and diabetes. And, interestingly, adolescents are more negatively affected by sleep deprivation when compared to an older adult. So how does sleep deprivation affect our young athletes? Let’s review the study.

Study Review: Sleep Deprivation and Sports Injuries in Young Athletes

The new study set out to explore if there was a connection between chronic sleep deprivation and sports injuries in young athletes. The study consisted of 112 subjects (58 female athletes, 54 male athletes) in middle and high-school grades 7–12. Records of injuries were obtained and online surveys were conducted.

The results? When compared to adolescents who averaged at least eight hours of sleep per night, those who averaged below eight hours of sleep per night had more injuries (1.7 times more likely). Additionally, the older the young athlete, the greater the chance of injury (1.4 times more likely for each grade level). This study did find a link between chronic sleep deprivation in adolescent athletes and an increased risk of sports injuries. However, a link doesn’t mean that one causes the other, so more research will have to be conducted. However, the link makes common sense.

Surgeries and Sports Injuries in Young Athletes

Knowing sleep deprivation can lead to sports injuries, it’s a good idea to be familiar with what sports injuries commonly occur in our young athletes. For starters, ACL injuries, meniscus tears, and elbow ligament injuries, but the list is long, and as more and more advanced skills are expected from our youth athletes today, it just keeps growing. In addition, if we rush them beyond conservative treatments and opt instead for aggressive surgeries to try to get them back on the field faster, this can not only limit their ability to play in the future but also lead to early arthritis and other issues in adulthood. Let’s review a few of these surgeries.

ACL Replacement Surgery

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is the front-back stabilizer of the knee. In young athletes, especially soccer players (females fare worse than males), an ACL tear is a common injury.

Surgeries for ACL tears in teens have gone through the roof in the last couple of decades. When the ACL is torn, either partially or completely, surgery involves cutting it out and replacing it with an artificial graft ligament. However, young athletes who undergo ACL replacement have a 29% change of graft failure or an ACL tear in the opposite knee within two years after surgery. Additionally, research has shown that two-thirds of teens who get ACL surgery a will develop arthritis by their 30s, so avoiding ACL surgery as a teen should be the primary goal.

Meniscus Repair

The meniscus is the shock absorber for the cartilage in the knee joint, and tears in the meniscus are one of the common sports injuries in young athletes. Meniscus repair is the most common orthopedic surgery in the United States. It isn’t actually a repair, in most cases, because over 90% of the time it actually involves excising, or cutting out, the piece of torn meniscus. Because it is such a common surgery, surgeons are quick to offer it up to parents as a solution for their young athlete’s meniscus tear, so you would think it must be a pretty quick and effective solution. But it’s not!

Meniscus surgery can increase forces on the cartilage and remaining meniscus, leading to an earlier onset of arthritis as an adult. Additionally, physical therapy has been shown to be just as effective as meniscus surgery and meniscus surgery seems to work no better than a fake surgery. So, again, avoiding meniscus surgery as a teen, and at any age in our opinion, is highly recommended.

UCL Repair (Tommy John Surgery)

In our young pitchers, elbow injuries of the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) are common due the forced placed on this ligament when the pitcher whips the ball. The UCL acts like duct tape, keeping the inside of the elbow stable.

Tommy John surgery reconstructs a partially or completely torn UCL using typically a graft tendon harvested from the patient’s hamstrings, and our young aspiring pitchers today who experience these tears are frequently turning to this surgery. However, we have no controlled-trial research showing that Tommy John surgery works any better than doing nothing. Results of Tommy John surgery also show lengthy recovery times, complication rates at nearly 20%, and there’s no research that reveals any long-term effects of this surgery in our young teen athletes. Avoiding Tommy John surgery should be the goal for any young aspiring pitcher with a UCL injury.

The upshot? I am dreading the back-to-school wake-up game. There are sure to be fireworks trying to get these kids back to a schedule where bedtime is 9 or 10 p.m. and not 1 or 3 a.m. However, realize that as parents we may also need to on the lookout for how sleep impacts our kids and their susceptibility to injury. So keep your kids away from big sports until their bodies adjust. Also, maybe a little sleep before that big game is key!

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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