COVID-19 And Student Athletes: How Can the Virus Impact Return-To-Play?
The end of summer marked the start of the school year, and for student athletes, the kickoff of the fall sports season. For many, COVID-19 sidelined practices, team gatherings and games to some extent last year. And while there is still hope that young athletes will have more opportunity to play this season despite rising cases of the Delta variant, there are other factors causing concern among athletes and their parents.
According to Ramsey Shehab, M.D., a sports medicine physician for Henry Ford Health System, many athletes are concerned about reaching peak performance after a long time off or after they have recovered from a COVID diagnosis. He reassures students that the feeling of exhaustion or even underperformance compared to past years is to be expected when you take time off or after fighting an illness.
“When you are infected with a virus, it taxes your immune system, and all of your energy goes towards fighting off that infection,” says Dr. Shehab. “You’ll likely feel weak and more tired during this time.”
Fortunately, as the body begins to recover, you’ll start to feel more like yourself again as you get your energy back. But this doesn’t mean that you won’t lose some of that fitness and endurance you’ve built up.
“It only takes about a week of deconditioning to set you back from peak athletic abilities,” says Dr. Shehab. “It is completely expected that your body will need time to get back to performing at your best.”
Playing Sports After Recovering From COVID-19
The unfortunate news: COVID-19 affects people differently in the long term. Some people are able to recover and get back to their routine without delay, whereas others see further complications months after an infection.
“With COVID-19, there is a risk of direct injury like heart failure or an arrhythmia due to the stress your body is under while fighting off the virus,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “As a result, having the virus can cause inflammation of the heart, a condition called myocarditis.”
Because of this, talking to your doctor before returning to a sport is a must if you had COVID or are recovering from the virus. It is important to make sure there are no systemic changes to your body such as overall heart health and lung function. They will be able to rule out any long-term effects that could impact your fitness output.
Expert-Recommended Steps for Return-To-Play
As you get back to your game, both experts share their insights for a healthy recovery:
1. Take quarantine periods seriously. If you are sick, even if you don’t necessarily feel sick, make sure you are taking time to rest and recover properly. “Don’t try to push or overexert yourself,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “It could prolong your recovery.”
2. Get back to training slowly. “Start using low-exertion activities to get your body used to working out again,” says Dr. Shehab. “Once you are able to handle each activity, you can push ahead to something more challenging.” Realistically, it may take a couple of weeks before you are able to get back to your peak.
3. Listen to your body. If workouts seem increasingly difficult, talk with your doctor or trainer before pushing yourself further. You can also help your body recover by making healthy, thoughtful choices:
► Get plenty of sleep
► Warm up and cool down before and after workouts
► Stay hydrated
► Take breaks when you’re tired
► Practice injury prevention
► Make smart food choices
4. Get vaccinated. If medical or religious reasons, or age requirements aren’t stopping you from getting the vaccine, consider getting the shot for yourself and those around you. The Delta variant is highly transmittable, meaning that, it is much easier for it to spread to teammates and family members than the original strain of the virus.
To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine, visit our Vaccine FAQs page.
Dr. Ramsey Shehab is the deputy chief of Sports Medicine at Henry Ford Health System. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine and Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township.
Dr. Akshay Khandelwal is an interventional cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center – Second Avenue.
Playing sports is a great way for children of all ages to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It also builds confidence and teaches them valuable life lessons, like working as a team and the value of hard work. While it may be every sports fanatic’s dream to have their kid make it big time in the arena or on the diamond, sometimes pushing young athletes to be the best at a young age can lead to serious injuries that will take them out of the game altogether.
"Sports help with physical and psychological well-being," says Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. "However, year-round participation in a single sport at a young age can lead to overuse injuries and mental burnout."
Nowadays, many kids will start playing one sport at a young age and continue to play that same sport year-round for years. This can be harmful to your child because his or her soft tissue and bone structures aren't fully developed. Furthermore, the pressures of year-round participation and focus on excelling, rather than enjoyment, can negatively affect a young athlete's mental health.
Basketball causes the most injuries among high schoolers, causing many visits to the emergency room each year for stressed and torn ankle ligaments. In baseball, the Tommy John surgery, a procedure to reconstruct torn ligaments in the elbow after overuse, has also been increasingly used to treat young athletes still in high school.
How To Prevent Sports Injuries
Preparing your children appropriately before a sports season begins and supporting them during the season is important. Dr. Santa Barbara offers four key pieces of advice to help your youth athletes avoid injury.
1. Don’t limit your child to one sport. Playing a variety of sports in different seasons is a great way to work different parts of the body. When your child gets older, they can make the transition to playing a single sport they are good at and enjoy.
2. Warm up. Make sure your child is properly warming up before they play any sport. Dynamic warmups--incorporating exercises that involve moving the body such as lunges, high knees and arm circles – are preferable to stretching alone.
3. Strengthen core muscles. Building up core strength takes pressure off joints in the arms and legs. It gives young athletes more momentum and can help improve their performance.
4. Abide by rest rules. Many schools and sports leagues have rules in place to limit how many teams kids are on or how often they play. Follow these to ensure your child is allowing time for their joints and muscles to recover from physical activity.
Children participating in a sport should never push through pain, and injuries should be promptly evaluated by a sports medicine physician. Physical injuries are often more obvious, while mental health issues due to sports participation can be more subtle. Symptoms such as fatigue and declining performance can be signs of burnout. In these situations, rest is also important.
"Sports should be fun for kids," says Dr. Santa Barbara. "Avoiding single-sports specialization at a young age keeps the focus on enjoyment while reducing the physical and psychological risks of year-round participation."
To find a sports medicine provider at Henry Ford Health, visit henryford.com/sportsmedicine or call 313-651-1969.
Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., is a non-operative sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus, Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township and Henry Ford Medical Center - Fairlane.