Attention high school athletes: You know that long-suffered pain in your knee or your back for which you've been too busy to see the doctor? Well, get it looked at. It could be an injury caused by continuous stress on the bone, tendon or muscle, known as an overuse injury. While there's almost nothing you can do to treat an overuse injury but to rest it, complications may arise if such injuries are ignored.
There are many types of overuse injuries, but some of the more common ones include Sever's disease (heel pain), Osgood-Schlatter disease (knee/leg pain), swimmer's shoulder, jumper's knee, or even shin splints.
"My heels have Sever's, and they hurt like a really bad bruise on the bottom of my heel, and something sharp jabbing into my Achilles every time I take a step," said Rachel Franz, 13, a seventh-grader at St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore.
Rachel participates in competitive gymnastics and suffers from Osgood-Schlatter and Sever's disease, partly as a result of growth.
Dee Pugliese, co-director of SportsFocus Physical Therapy, sees athletes with overuse injuries every couple of months.
"[The most common overuse injuries I see are] low back pain or pain in either leg that could be related to a low back problem … I think that teenagers greater than 15-16 are most likely to develop injuries," she said. "They are training on a daily basis and performing training exercises on higher levels and for longer periods of time, which makes them more likely to suffer from these symptoms."
Often, the only cure for an overuse injury is rest. However, this can be frustrating for athletes.
Lauren Testa, 14, a freshman at North Tonawanda High School, suffers from Sever's disease and stress fractures in her feet. She participates in soccer, track and field and gymnastics.
"It's frustrating because [overuse injuries] take so much longer to come back from than a normal injury, and you have to take it so slow," Lauren said.
Lauren and Rachel both use extra equipment to alleviate some of the pain of their overuse injuries. Rachel wears heel pads and a knee brace while practicing, which make landings softer. Lauren uses special padding in her shoes while running and playing soccer. And when they're not practicing, they're icing.
"To treat my injuries, I pretty much just ice, stretch and take it easy on the hard things on my body when I'm hurting really bad," said Rachel of her injury treatment. "Most of the time, my injuries feel the best when I'm stretching or just relaxing and doing nothing active."
Treatment often varies based on the type of overuse injury, which are often difficult to diagnose and treat.
"No matter what type of overuse injury, determining the cause of the overuse is one of the most important starting points," Pugliese said. "Once the cause is determined, treatment can focus on correcting the reason for the abnormal pattern or altering the training routine to make sure that an athlete's symptoms do not increase with exercise or sports activities or daily activities."
Another tricky aspect of these injuries is that there are few ways to prevent them. Symptoms do not immediately show, which means that an athlete could be training and unknowingly making an overuse injury worse.
Pugliese offered a simple way to decrease the risk of overuse injury while training.
"If athletes can begin training six to eight weeks earlier than the official start of practice and gradually build up to that starting point, the chance of developing an overuse injury will be lower," she said.