Health Care Teamwork Makes Young Athletes’ Dreams Work

WORDS and IMAGES courtesy Arkansas Children’s Northwest

Oct 1, 2023 | Featured, Health

Some young athletes dream of playing professional sports. For others, sports are a fun way to spend time with friends and teammates. Whether a young athlete wants to play for a single season or many years, sports are a source of joy. The physical benefits of regular exercise, the self-discipline that comes with daily practice, and the emotional benefits of camaraderie all contribute to the joy. An injury can bring a jarring stop to those sources of happiness and health and devastate a young person.

Arkansas Children’s Northwest (ACNW) uses a team approach – with some unexpected players – to prevent and treat injuries so young athletes can return to the sports they love.

The ACNW sports medicine team includes athletic trainers, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and physicians, all trained in dealing with the unique needs of children’s developing bodies, such as growth plate injuries.

Children have cartilage, called growth plates, at the end of the long bones in their legs and arms. Before it becomes solid bone, the cartilage can be sensitive to damage. Growth plates are an example of a body part that children have and adults don’t. Preventing or caring for injuries to growth plates varies by the athlete’s age, said Sean Huddleston, clinical operations manager of sports medicine at ACNW. According to Sean, athletic trainers specializing in pediatrics recognize when a pre-teen baseball pitcher may need to rest their pitching arm for a few weeks, unlike a collegiate pitcher who may need surgery for torn ligaments near the growth plate.

“The beauty of a sports medicine team devoted to caring for young athletes is they know what to look for in certain age ranges and how injury mechanisms change and morph with growing bodies,” Sean said.

When an injury occurs, the speed of treatment can be a significant factor in the length of the rehabilitation and recovery process. ACNW athletic trainers – often the first point of contact for an injured athlete – are in Northside and Southside High Schools in Fort Smith, Fayetteville High School, Farmington High School, Shiloh Christian School, and starting this school year in Greenwood High School, along with Springdale’s Har-Ber and Springdale High School.

Athletic trainers focus on preventing injuries by emphasizing hydration and proper stretching techniques. In the event of injury, trainers can also help communicate the specifics of the injury to nurses and physicians. The sports medicine clinic at ACNW is open five days a week to ensure most injured athletes can begin treatment without delay.

Another benefit of sports medicine specialists trained to work specifically with young athletes is understanding and empathy for the emotional toll of physical injuries. The ACNW team helps patients and their caregivers process the frustration of being removed from play. The ACNW pediatric sports medicine specialists follow safe return-to-play protocols to reduce reinjury risk. Injured athletes are evaluated for safety, pain, and function criteria.

Physicians determine whether the injury has adequately healed. If so, the conversation turns to questions about the likelihood of pain and whether the pain is an expected part of the healing process or an indicator of reinjury. Finally, sports medicine specialists help athletes understand how the injury may impact or diminish their athletic abilities.

Unexpected sports medicine team members at ACNW include dieticians and financial counselors. Dieticians can recommend healthy snack options and create meal plans tailored to a young athlete’s goals, like offensive linemen wanting to gain size and strength or wrestlers intent on being lean. Sean notes dieticians help impressionable young athletes spot “popular trends to avoid in sports nutrition.”

Other valuable but lesser-known ACNW sports medicine team members are the hospital’s financial counselors. Insurance isn’t always a top priority for young, healthy athletes, but sorting through paperwork can delay treatment. Financial counselors help families navigate insurance claims quickly and efficiently to get athletes the care they need.

Together, the team of pediatric sports medicine specialists helps young athletes safely return to the sports they love.

To make an appointment or learn more about Arkansas Children’s Northwest Sports Medicine, visit

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