Scrapes, bumps, and bruises from outdoor play are a child's rite of passage, but sometimes a fall or a tumble results in a more serious injury. For many parents, the problem is to know when a twisted ankle is just a minor sprain or something worse — a serious child injury requiring a trip to the emergency room.
Common Childhood Injuries
Sprains and strains are two of the most common injuries in active children. A sprain occurs when the ligaments, which hold bones together, are overstretched. This can result from falling and landing on an outstretched arm or jumping and landing on the side of the foot. A strain is when a muscle or tendon, which connects muscles to bone, is overstretched, twisted, or torn. Sometimes, strains are referred to as a pulled muscle. Sprains and strains can be painful, but with the right treatment, most heal with no lasting problems.
Bone fractures are another fairly common child injury. Your child might have a broken bone if he or she hears or feels the bone snap, cannot bend or straighten the injured part, or if the area is very painful to the touch. Most fractures occur in the area of the long bones of the fingers, forearm, and lower leg — the weakest areas in growing children and adolescents. These injuries require immediate medical attention.
Rest Is Critical
Minor sprains and strains can generally be treated at home with ice and elevation to reduce pain and swelling. Rest is also important. "The key to prevent an existing injury from getting worse while healing is to avoid sports or any physical activity that puts pressure on the injured area," says Dr. Karineh H. Aboulian, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and an affiliated physician at Glendale Memorial Hospital and Health Center.
Knowing When to See Your Doctor
Falls that don't result in direct head trauma generally do not need medical attention, but if a child's injury prevents them from moving their arm or putting weight on their leg, it requires professional care. It's harder to know when to get help if there's no obvious trauma or if the symptoms don't get in the way of resuming an activity.
Below are general guidelines on when a child's injury might be more serious:
- If the child has severe pain.
- If symptoms do not go away after rest and home treatment.
- If the injured area looks crooked or has lumps and bumps.
- If the child has numbness in any part of the injured area.
- If there is a lot of swelling or redness near the injury.
Where to Get Treated
"When in doubt, it is always recommended to seek medical care for a child's injury," says Dr. Aboulian. Most hospital emergency rooms can handle pediatric emergencies and have access to doctors who specialize in treating severe strains, sprains, and bone breaks. Pediatricians who work in non-hospital or outpatient settings can also provide care for child injuries; however, their offices may not have all the equipment needed for emergency evaluation and treatment of serious injuries.
Remember, too, that the experience of being injured will be emotional for a child, whether you seek emergency treatment or not. Be sure to tend to these needs, as well — there's no harm in kissing it better, even when doing so can't fix everything.