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Adolescent Growth Spurt – the basics

Adolescence presents many physical and emotional changes to a child, and quite often also to all those around them. During this period the demands of a pupil’s sport or dance will be increasing and the expectations of teachers, coaches and pupils are high. Each student will experience these growth spurts at different ages and stages throughout the years so it is a difficult age group to manage as a teacher or coach.

The growth spurt sits alongside the other obvious developments of adolescence. These include developments in emotions, psychology, thinking, social relationships and sexual identity.

Some adolescents will grow at a slow steady rate over a two year period while others will experience spurts of rapid growth where bones can grow 2-5cm over one to two months. Girls can grow up to 8cm in a year between the ages of 11 and 14 years, and boys tend to grow up to 10cm a year between 13 and 16 years of age.

The long bones of the arms and legs grow before the bones of the torso and then the muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves catch up.

The nerves need time to grow and communicate what is happening around the body. It is this latency of bone to muscle to nerve growth that presents the gangly uncoordinated teenager who has difficulty even walking in a straight line without falling over! The centre of gravity is constantly changing so equilibrium is being challenged all the time.

It is important to respect this growth and allow the rest of the body to catch up with the bones especially if the demands of a student’s dance, acrobatics, gymnastics or other sport increase. Stretching the tight muscles may actually be harmful during this stage as this will cause more pulling on the tendons inserting into the bones. It can be painful and may lead to injuries.

A common growth injury is Osgood-Schlatter disease that occurs at the tibial tuberostiy just under the front of the knee. This is when the tendon from the thigh muscles that attaches to this bony point on the upper shin pulls at the bone due to the new relative tension in the thigh muscles. The bone becomes stressed and inflamed where the tendon is pulling and creates a permanent lump making the tibial tuberosity larger than usual. It is aggravated by activities such as jumping, running and squatting and can take anything from a couple of months to over a year for the pain to settle. Avoiding these aggravating activities and massaging or rolling out the tight muscles, along with a lot of patience is the key to preventing injury and ongoing pain.

Each individual will need to be cared for differently depending on where they are at in their adolescence. Many adolescents do not undergo massive growth spurts and can grow slowly and steadily over a couple of years and maintain, or even improve their flexibility, strength and coordination; it is the “spurt sufferers” that are more likely to experience pain, tightness, weakness and lack of coordination.

Awareness that this is a short-term situation is important, and encouragement to maintain a comfortable level of exercise, sports participation or dance classes that does not hurt will help avoid major physical problems during this period. Consulting a health practitioner familiar with these adolescent pains and injuries will help the pupil safely through this period with exercise and advice.

Physiotherapy can not only help with hands-on pain relief but also with the planning and progression of activities that are safe and most importantly, fun!

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