What Are Overuse Injuries?
Overuse injuries (or repetitive stress injuries) are injuries that happen when too much stress is placed on a part of the body. They can cause:
- inflammation (pain and swelling)
- muscle strain
- tissue damage
This stress generally is from repeating the same movements over and over again.
Overuse injuries are common work-related injuries, often affecting people who spend a lot of time using computers and other devices.
While most common in adults, overuse injuries are seen in teens because they spend so much time using phones, computers, and other devices. Sports-related repetitive stress injuries also can happen in sports like tennis, swimming, and soccer that involve repetitive motions.
What Causes Overuse Injuries?
In teens, overuse injuries most often happen at growth plates (areas at the ends of bones where bone cells multiply rapidly, making bones longer as someone grows). Areas most affected by overuse injuries are the elbows, shoulders, knees, and heels.
When making the same movements repeatedly over time, the body's joints and surrounding tendons and muscles become irritated and inflamed.
Some jobs that involve repetitive tasks — such as scanning items as a supermarket checker or carrying heavy trays as a waiter — can lead to overuse injuries. Sometimes, playing musical instruments can cause problems from overuse of certain hand or arm movements. Any repetitive movement can cause an injury — even text messaging!
Teens may be at risk for overuse injuries because of the significant physical growth that happens in the preteen and teen years. The growth spurt (the rapid growth period during puberty) can create extra tightness and tension in muscles and tendons, making teens more prone to injury.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Overuse Injuries?
Symptoms of overuse injuries include:
- tingling, numbness, or pain in the affected area
- stiffness or soreness in the neck or back
- feelings of weakness or fatigue in the hands, arms, or legs
- popping or clicking sensation
If you notice any of these warning sign, see your doctor. Even if your symptoms seem to come and go, don't ignore them or they may lead to more serious problems.
Without treatment, overuse injuries can become more severe and prevent you from doing simple everyday tasks and participating in sports, music, and other favorite activities.
What Kinds of Overuse Injuries Can Teens Get?
Overuse injuries that can develop in teens include:
Bursitis. Inflammation of a bursa, which is a fluid-filled sac that acts as a cushion for a joint, is known as bursitis (pronounced: bur-SYE-tis). Signs of bursitis include pain and swelling. It is associated with frequent overhead reaching, carrying overloaded backpacks, and overusing certain joints during sports, such as the knee or shoulder.
Carpal tunnel syndrome. In carpal tunnel syndrome, swelling occurs inside a narrow "tunnel" formed by bone and ligament in the wrist. This tunnel surrounds nerves that conduct sensory and motor impulses to and from the hand, causing pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness. Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by repeated motion that can happen during activities like typing or playing video games (using joysticks). It's rare in teens and more common in adults, especially those in computer-related jobs.
Epicondylitis. This condition is characterized by pain and swelling at the point where the bones join at the elbow. Epicondylitis (pronounced: eh-pih-kon-dih-LYE-tis) is nicknamed "tennis elbow" because it often happens in tennis players.
Osgood-Schlatter disease. This is a common cause of knee pain in teens, especially teen athletes who are undergoing a growth spurt. Frequent use and physical stress (such as running long distances) can cause inflammation at the area where the tendon from the kneecap attaches to the shinbone.
Patellofemoral syndrome. This is a softening or breaking down of kneecap cartilage . Squatting, kneeling, and climbing stairs and hills can aggravate pain around the knee.
Shin splints. This term refers to pain along the shin or front of the lower leg. Shin splints are commonly found in runners and are usually harmless, although they can be quite painful. They can be difficult to tell apart from stress fractures.
Stress fractures. Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone's surface caused by rhythmic, repetitive overloading. These injuries can happen when a bone comes under repeated stress from running, marching, walking, or jumping, or from stress on the body like when a person changes running surfaces or runs in worn-out sneakers.
Tendonitis. In tendonitis, tearing and inflammation happen in the tendons, rope-like bands of tissue that connect muscles to bones. Tendonitis is associated with repetitive overstretching of tendons from overuse of some muscles.
Can I Prevent Overuse Injuries?
To prevent injuries from computer use, make sure your computer equipment and furniture fit you properly and that you use correct typing and sitting positions. If your parents are shopping for new computer furniture, suggest that they buy pieces that can be adjusted for each family member.
Here are some tips:
- Make sure the top of your computer screen is aligned with your forehead.
- Sit up straight with your back touching the back of your seat. Chairs that provide extra support, especially lumbar (lower back) support are helpful. Avoid slouching over your keyboard or tensing your shoulders, which can place unnecessary stress on your neck, back, and spine.
- Let your legs rest comfortably with your feet flat on the floor or on a footrest.
- Use a light touch when typing. Place the keyboard close to you so that you don't have to reach for it.
- Fingers and wrists should remain level while typing. Try a wrist rest for extra support. Your wrists and forearms should be at a 90-degree angle to the upper part of your arms. Elbows should be placed close to the side of the body to prevent bending the wrists side to side.
- It's easy to lose track of time when you're surfing the Internet or immersed in a homework assignment. Be sure to take breaks (to stretch or walk around) about every 30–60 minutes — even if you don't feel tired or feel any pain. (If you lose track of time, use a timer so you know when you're due for a break.)
- Try an ergonomic ("ergonomic" means specially designed for comfort) keyboard that has a curved design, and use a trackball instead of a mouse.
How Can I Feel Better?
The sooner an overuse is diagnosed, the sooner your body can heal, so be sure to see your doctor if you have symptoms.
Resting the affected area is the key to getting better. Your doctor may recommend that you take anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen). Ice packs are sometimes recommended to reduce pain and swelling.
After the swelling and pain have gone away, your doctor may suggest physical therapy to exercise your muscles and prevent loss of joint movement.
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to overuse injuries. Be sensible about the amount of time you spend doing any repeated motions. Overall flexibility and strength can help to prevent overuse injuries, so exercise regularly and stay active (remembering warm-ups, cool-downs, and stretching, of course!).