A University of Toledo study has found that young long-distance runners were significantly less likely to seek care for injuries suffered during the early months of COVID-19 than they were pre-pandemic.
As the pandemic paused organized youth sports across the country, running was seen as one of the few activities that could go on reasonably uninterrupted, even if teams couldn’t practice together.
However, a nationwide survey conducted by UToledo researchers last summer found young long-distance runners had cut down on both the frequency and intensity of their training. The survey looked at the habits of recreational runners as well as those involved in cross-country, track and road racing ages 9 to 19.
While that reduction in training reduced the overall number of reported running injuries, only 42% of those who suffered an injury during the pandemic had visited a healthcare provider. Before the pandemic, 84% of those hurt saw an athletic trainer, physician or other healthcare provider.
“We really think there could be long-term implications here,” said Dr. David Bazett-Jones, associate professor and co-director of the Motion Analysis & Integrative Neurophysiology Laboratory and the study’s lead author. “In addition to untreated injuries that can lead to chronic problems, young athletes not maintaining training status could also have an impact when they resume competition.”
The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.
UToledo’s survey did not explicitly ask participants why they went without treatment, but Bazett-Jones said the results suggests that lack of access to athletic trainers was a major factor.
While visits to many other healthcare providers, such as pediatricians, physical therapists and orthopaedic surgeons were largely unchanged, there was a steep decline in athletic trainer visits.
“Athletic trainers provide high-schoolers and middle-schoolers direct access to care,” Bazett-Jones said. “They don’t necessarily have to get mom and dad on board to bring them to the doctor. It’s part of what the school is providing with athletics.”
As schools were forced to shut down in-person learning, along with team activities, that easy access to direct care was gone.
“When kids don’t have anybody to go to and check, ‘is this something I need to get looked at, is this something that I should do some rehabilitation for,’ they’re frequently not receiving any care at all,” he said.
Interestingly, researchers did not observe an increase in telemedicine visits for running injuries, despite a broad expansion of telehealth services across the United States for a range of complaints. Other research conducted during the pandemic found high levels of satisfaction for virtual visits to sports medicine practices, and Bazett-Jones said some athletic training practices have embraced telemedicine.
However, it’s possible that many individuals aren’t aware of the possibility to use telemedicine for sports injuries.
“With the technology we have available, we should be able to increase access to care, but I don’t know if we’re harnessing that as well as we could,” Bazett-Jones said. “That’s something we should explore further.”
Though the UToledo study focused exclusively on long-distance runners, Bazett-Jones said it’s important that healthcare providers, coaches and parents are making sure that young athletes in all sports are taking a progressive, strategic approach to returning to action to reduce the risk of injury.