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Thursday, 15 April, 1999, 17:08 GMT
Injury risks for young footballers
Liverpool's boy wonder Michael Owen has been knocked out of football for three months following the recurrence of a hamstring injury.
He is not alone. Manchester United's Ryan Giggs - another teen sensation in his time - is also injured with ankle strain. The Welsh international's career has also been plagued by injury.
And most memorably Norman Whiteside, having been the youngest player ever to appear in the World Cup Finals, was forced by injury to retire at 25.
But is there evidence that players who start in the top flight at a young age are at greater risk of injury?
What are the special risks for younger sportsmen?
Dr Phil Bell, a GP with a special interest in sports medicine, said the fact that adolescents' bodies are relatively immature puts them at greater risk of injury.
"For young sportsmen, the intensity and the training of their matchplay has greatly increased," he said.
"If you impose that on a relatively immature musculo-skeletal system, they are more prone to injury."
He said that adolescent and adult athletes were affected by different types of injury.
"Teens are more likely to suffer injuries at the growth plates - the centres of growth of the bone - and the attachment points for tendons," he said.
"Adults are more likely to suffer tears to the muscle and ligaments."
Younger athletes are particularly vulnerable during times of increased growth, Dr Bell said.
Dr Bell said the long-term risk was that promising young athletes would have to drop out of sport before they had fulfilled their potential.
What are the figures?
The Football Association is currently performing an audit of all injuries suffered by professional footballers in England and Wales over the last two seasons.
It will be complete at the end of the current season, when the FA will publish its findings along with recommendations for best practice to avoid injury.
The study will show whether or not younger players are more prone to injury.
Preliminary findings suggest they are not, but this is before the figures have been properly analysed.
Richard Hawkins, of the FA's Medical Education Unit, said they will only get a definite answer when they study is complete.
He said: "Our preliminary findings show that younger players - aged 18 to 20 - suffer fewer injuries than older players in the 26 to 30 bracket.
"But our figures have not yet been correlated with the number of games played, and it could be that younger players are involved in fewer games."
More definitive findings will be available following another FA survey, this time looking at injuries in young footballers aged nine to 18.
What are the general risks?
The main injury risks facing footballers are soft tissue injuries - those to muscles, tendons and ligaments, especially in the legs.
Mr Hawkins said these accounted for about 70% of the injuries the FA had recorded.
These are usually caused by single non-contact incidents such as over-stretching.
But a footballer is more likely to suffer such an injury if they have played in a few hard games in the recent past, Mr Hawkins said.
He said the number of games played in the UK could pose a risk in itself.
"The trend for young players here is to play 40 games a season," he said. "This is far more than in the rest of Europe - perhaps even than in Spain, where they have a large league.
"Injuries could be caused by playing too many games too young, but we have to look at all the others playing, we have to look at their histories and their games."
The risk of injury also depended on "a host of factors" he said, including amount of training, the type of training, pitch conditions and the stresses of individual matches.
How can players avoid injury?
A key element in avoiding injury was getting the right training regime for the player, Mr Hawkins said.
One rise in injuries the FA has already noted is during pre-season matches. This levels off as the season progresses, he said, and could be because of footballers taking a break in training.
"If you look at athletics," he said, "they have an outdoor season, an indoor season and an off-season, but they always keep their training ticking over."
However, footballers tend to take six weeks off, he said.
"Professional footballers are professional athletes and they should treat themselves as such."
Again, the number of games played could have a role to play, he said.
"If you look at Manchester United, where Alex Ferguson has a great depth of talent, you see fewer injuries.
"The younger players - the Nevilles and the Beckhams - came through without problems. This could be because they don't have to play as many games."
Conversely, teams such as Wimbledon, with a smaller squad, suffered more injury troubles, he said.
Club coaches were well placed to prevent injuries, he said, and they now receive more theoretical training covering subjects such as man management, psychology and nutrition.
Mr Hawkins said he hoped this education would filter through the system and lead to a reduction in the number of injuries
Links to other Medical notes stories are at the foot of the page.
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