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Following a Decline in 2020, Juvenile Sports Injuries Have Quickly Returned in 2021

The excitement around the Winter Olympics and anticipation of Super Bowl LVI next weekend inspired some research around sports-related injuries, and how COVID-19 lockdowns, social distancing, virtual school, and disruption to recreational sports may have impacted prevalence of sports injuries, particularly for older children.

Studies conducted since the onset of the pandemic have shown that as expected, sports-related injuries for children declined in 2020. However, experts in the field of sports medicine have warned of increased risk for injury following a prolonged period without that same level of physical activity. 

Given the pandemic’s impact on sports injuries, we queried our all-payer claims database to analyze this observed healthcare trend in more detail. Specifically, we assessed sports-related injuries by injury type (e.g., head vs. knee injuries) from 2019-2021. As expected, there was a 46.4% decline in sports injury volume for this age group between 2019 and 2020, which has since rebounded by 36.5% from 2020 to 2021 (Figure 1).

Notably, the rank of most common injuries is different before and after the onset of the pandemic. While knee injuries accounted for a slightly smaller share of sports injuries in this age segment than wrist injuries in 2019, they accounted for three percentage points more than wrist injuries in 2020 and 2021. In contrast, head injuries (e.g., concussions) declined by three percentage points from 2019 to 2020 and have not increased to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 amid nationwide reopening. 

Figure 1_02.06.22-v2
The change in type of injury from 2019 to 2020 (i.e., increase in share of elbow injuries and decline in share of head injuries) may be attributable to an increase in individual sports amid lockdown policies limiting team sports. Furthermore, the overall volume decline of sports injuries in 2020 correlates with an overall volume decline of resulting surgeries (e.g., ACL tear repairs). Amid nationwide reopening, return to in-person school, and overall return of recreational team sports in 2021, the volume of sports-related injuries also returned, though not to pre-pandemic levels. As hospitals endure staffing shortages and delays for non-essential surgeries, it will be interesting to observe whether untreated juvenile sports injuries seen in 2021 are reflected in the broader issue of downstream care impacts of COVID-19.

Thanks to Kelly Boyce and Katie Patton for their research support.

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