Broken bones, sprains, and abrasions are common among active children. But a growth plate fracture or injury should be taken more seriously as it can result in problems later if not treated properly and promptly.
What Are Growth Plates?
Growth plates, also called the physis, are the softest and weakest parts of long bones, which are longer than they are wide. Long bones include:
Long bones don’t grow from the center outward, but growth occurs at the end of each bone. The growth plates harden into bone during adolescence—usually by age 14 for girls and 16 for boys.
Primary Growth Plates and Secondary Growth Centers
According to Aaron Provance, MD, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine at the University of Utah, two areas related to growth plates can be injured—primary growth plates and secondary growth centers.
Primary Growth Plates:
These are responsible for increasing height and length and are typically found in the long bones. An example of a long bone would be the femur or the humerus.
Secondary Growth Centers:
Also sometimes called secondary ossification centers, these are believed to have evolved to protect the growth plate structure.
Injuries to Growth Plates and Secondary Growth Centers
Both types of primary growth plates and secondary growth centers are vulnerable to fractures or injuries caused by overuse.
If not treated properly and promptly, fractures to the growth plate can cause problems with bone development and lead to a shorter or deformed limb. This is especially problematic for younger children who experience a growth plate fracture because their bone development hasn’t progressed as much as that of an older child.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the symptoms of a growth plate fracture include:
- Visible deformity of the limb
- Inability to put pressure on the limb
- Swelling, warmth, and tenderness in the area around the end of the bone or near the joint
Provance notes that the secondary growth centers are particularly prone to overuse injuries. Treatment for growth center overuse injuries usually includes physical therapy, bracing, and modified training periods or rest from sport.
He advises children and adolescents that sustain an injury to a joint or close to a joint with significant swelling, pain, and difficulty moving the joint to seek medical care and get evaluated for growth plate injuries. Young athletes with ongoing pain that see minimal improvement over time should also be evaluated for a potential growth center overuse injury.
There are a few things parents can do to help reduce the risk of growth plate and growth center injuries. These include:
- Make sure your child does not overtrain for a sport. The rule of thumb is 1 hour of training per week for every year in age. For example, a 10-year-old should not train more than 10 hours a week.
- Make sure your child has the necessary protective gear for their sport and knows the fundamentals of safety for organized sports like football or recreational sports like skateboarding or cycling.
- Pay attention to any complaints your child has about pain in the shoulders, knees, or other joints, a decline in performance, or an inability to participate in their sport due to pain.
“When identified and treated early and appropriately, most growth plate injuries will heal well and have no long-term complications,” Provance says.