During spring sports season, many young athletes play with seemingly normal but persistent foot pain. 

“Playing through the pain” is often viewed as a badge of honor among athletes, but persistent foot pain may be a sign of more serious injury.

Athletes of all ages visit my office with foot pain due to overuse injuries of the foot and ankle from running or other aerobic sports. 

When athletes overdo their training, some temporary foot or ankle discomfort may be normal. But if pain lasts more than a few days with continued redness, warmth or swelling, it’s time to see a foot and ankle surgeon for proper diagnosis and treatment options.

Athletes who ignore persistent foot pain risk potential complications that could sideline them for months. Pain that does not resolve may indicate a stress fracture, muscle strain, tendonitis or other condition.

An examination and diagnosis by a foot specialist can determine whether the pain is from overuse or subtle trauma. It may require only a few days of rest or more comprehensive treatment. 

Heel pain in children is often caused by injuries to the growth plate of the heel bone, a strip of soft tissue where new bone is forming to accommodate growing feet. Boys and girls ages 8 to 14 are susceptible to this problem. Its major symptom is pain on either side of the heel.

Growth-plate trauma is common in soccer and other sports that involve a lot of running. Student athletes with heel pain should stretch before playing and apply ice to the back of the heel after the game or practice. In some cases, anti-inflammatory drugs and shoe inserts are recommended, but the potential for recurrent injury exists until the growth plate closes.

Several factors are considered when determining the underlying cause of foot and ankle pain in young athletes. These include:

Running or playing surfaces: Athletes who train on asphalt or cement are more prone to stress injuries than those who run on cushioned tracks or natural grass fields.

Shoes: Footwear should be appropriate for the sport and match the biomechanics of the individual’s foot. Those who engage in one sport more than three times a week should wear athletic shoes designed for that sport.

Training: Injuries often result when athletes fail to build up to a desired training goal. For example, a runner shouldn’t set a goal of 20 miles a week without gradually working up to that distance.

Behavioral factors: Overuse injuries in children sometimes occur due to excessive parental pressure to achieve in sports.

Nutrition: Stress fractures can occur in athletes with poor nutritional habits.

Over-training: Sleep problems, irritability and fatigue are common among some athletes who exercise aggressively.

Physical characteristics: Variations in bone structure and muscle development can be manifested in bowleggedness or malalignment issues.

There are many forms of treatment to keep children pain-free and participating in sports. For more information about foot and ankle conditions, contact Wentz Foot & Ankle Specialists at 719-539-6600.

Dr. Ralph Wentz is a board-certified foot and ankle surgeon in Salida.

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