June 21, 2021 — As pandemic restrictions ease and young athletes once again take to fields, courts, tracks, and rinks, doctors are sharing ways to help them get back to sports safely.
That means taking steps to prevent COVID-19.
It also means trying to avoid sports-related injuries, which may be more likely if young athletes didn’t move around so much during the pandemic.
For adolescents who are eligible, getting a COVID-19 vaccine may be the most important thing they can do, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
“I don’t think it can be overemphasized how important these vaccines are, both for the individual and at the community level,” says Aaron L. Baggish, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Baggish, team cardiologist for the New England Patriots, the Boston Bruins, the New England Revolution, U.S. Men’s and Women’s Soccer, and U.S. Rowing, as well as medical director for the Boston Marathon, has studied the effects of COVID-19 on the heart in college athletes and written return-to-play recommendations for athletes of high school age and older.
“Millions of people have received these vaccines from age 12 up,” Baggish says. “The efficacy continues to look very durable and near complete, and the risk associated with vaccination is incredibly low, to the point where the risk-benefit ratio across the age spectrum, whether you’re athletic or not, strongly favors getting vaccinated. There is really no reason to hold off at this point.”
While outdoor activities are lower-risk for spreading COVID-19 and many people have been vaccinated, masks still should be worn in certain settings, the AAP notes.
“Indoor spaces that are crowded are still high-risk for COVID-19 transmission. And we recognize that not everyone in these settings may be vaccinated,” says Susannah Briskin, MD, lead author of the AAP guidance.
“So for indoor sporting events with spectators, in locker rooms or other small spaces such as a training room, and during shared car rides or school transportation to and from events, individuals should continue to mask,” adds Briskin, a pediatrician in the Division of Sports Medicine and fellowship director for the Primary Care Sports Medicine program at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital.
For outdoor sports, athletes who are not fully vaccinated should be encouraged to wear masks on the sidelines and during group training and competition when they are within 3 feet of others for sustained amounts of time, according to the AAP.
Get Back Into Exercise Gradually
In general, athletes who have not been active for more than a month should resume exercise gradually, Briskin says. Starting at 25% of normal volume and increasing slowly over time — with 10% increases each week — is one rule of thumb.
“Those who have taken a prolonged break from sports are at a higher risk of injury when they return,” she notes. “Families should also be aware of an increased risk for heat-related illness if they are not acclimated.”
Caitlyn Mooney, MD, a team doctor for the University of Texas at San Antonio, has heard reports of doctors seeing more injuries like stress fractures. Some cases may relate to people going from “months of doing nothing to all of a sudden going back to sports,” says Mooney, who is also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and orthopedics at UT Health San Antonio.
“The coaches, the parents, and the athletes themselves really need to keep in mind that it’s not like a regular season,” Mooney says. She suggests gradually ramping up activity and paying attention to any pain. “That’s a good indicator that maybe you’re going too fast,” she adds.
Athletes should be mindful of other symptoms too when restarting exercise, especially after illness.
It is “very important that any athlete with recent COVID-19 monitor for new symptoms when they return to exercise,” says Jonathan Drezner, MD, a professor of family medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A little fatigue from detraining may be expected, but exertional chest pain deserves more evaluation.”
Drezner — editor-in-chief of the British Journal of Sports Medicine and team doctor for the Seattle Seahawks — along with Baggish and colleagues, found a low prevalence of cardiac involvement in a study of more than 3,000 college athletes with prior SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“Any athlete, despite their initial symptom course, who has cardiopulmonary symptoms on return to exercise, particularly chest pain, should see their physician for a comprehensive cardiac evaluation,” Drezner says. “Cardiac MRI should be reserved for athletes with abnormal testing or when clinical suspicion of myocardial involvement is high.”
If an athlete had COVID-19 with moderate symptoms (such as fever, chills, or a flu-like syndrome) or cardiopulmonary symptoms (such as chest pain or shortness of breath), cardiac testing should be considered, he notes.
These symptoms “were associated with a higher prevalence of cardiac involvement,” Drezner said in an email. “Testing may include an ECG, echocardiogram (ultrasound), and troponin (blood test).”
For kids who test positive for SARS-CoV-2 but do not have symptoms, or their symptoms last less than 4 days, a phone call or telemedicine visit with their doctor may be enough to clear them to play, says Briskin, who’s also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
“This will allow the physician an opportunity to screen for any concerning cardiac signs or symptoms, update the patient’s electronic medical record with the recent COVID-19 infection, and provide appropriate guidance back to exercise,” she adds.