As a young girl, Samantha Grams was always involved in sports, mostly through her local park district and school teams. Once she learned about competitive opportunities in high school, Samantha was a multi-sport athlete until her junior year when she chose to focus specifically on volleyball.
Right before her senior season, Samantha tore her ACL.
To say recovery was a struggle is an understatement.
“I didn’t fully recover until halfway through my sophomore year of my college career at Northern Illinois University (NIU),” recalled Samantha of the mental, physical, and performance struggles during that time of healing.
Just when Samantha thought she had turned a corner, that same year, she tore the ACL in her other knee.
“It took until about the age of 28 until I wasn’t in constant pain in my knees, back, foot, and hip,” said Samantha. “I felt like a total failure.”
From D1 college ball at Northern Illinois University and eventually Director of Operations for her team, Samantha went on to be an ESPN color commentator, club coach, and eventually, a physical therapist.
Now Co-owner of Empower Women's Health in St. Charles, Illinois, Samantha’s on a mission to help athletes avoid negative experiences in sports, especially those related to injuries.
“Sports should be a positive experience for our young athletes,” says Samantha. “I know they shaped my life significantly and I would not trade my experiences for anything, however, injuries can play a debilitating and negative part.”
Armed with her own successful history in sports and intimate knowledge of recovering from injury, Dr. Grams offers a triad of support, helping athletes:
Feel empowered by listening to their goals and providing a safe space to be heard.
In terms of youth sports, Dr. Grams emphasizes that it’s important to recognize the increased competitive nature is leading to earlier sports specialization. While opportunities to play at a higher and advanced level seem positive, the reality is that a child’s body is not able to withstand the repetitive movements that come with sports specialization.
“This often leads to increased injuries, decreased performance, and earlier drop-out of sports,” explained Dr. Grams.
So, how can parents help their athletes avoid the negative effects of injuries?
Dr. Grams recommends preventing overuse injuries:
○ Delay sports specialization as long as possible. There's no magic age for when it's okay as every child develops at different rates. In general, wait at least until high school. Despite current assumptions, multi-sport athletes are more successful and more likely to play in college and beyond.
○ Ensure adequate rest. A general rule of thumb includes getting 8+ hours of sleep per night, keeping the total hours of weekly sports participation less than the child’s age, getting 2 days of rest per week from sports participation, avoiding playing a single sport for more than 8 months out of the year, and taking a break from organized sports at the end of each sports season (2 weeks is often the recommended time).
What if my child has a significant acute injury?
○ If you have access to an athletic trainer or sports physical therapist, seek their professional advice early
○ If you do not have access to an athletic trainer or sports physical therapist, seek care if:
■ Any acute/traumatic injury significantly affects their ability to function.
■ Even if your child has an x-ray (usually the first step) that doesn’t show bone injury and the recommendation is rest, consider asking for physical therapy.
■ If your child sustains an acute or traumatic injury to the lower body and is less than 12, is unable to walk for more than 4 steps after their injury, or has tenderness around any bony prominences it is best to take them for an x-ray. Bone injuries are more likely to occur in children compared to soft tissue injuries.
■ A child is complaining of persistent pain. Even if it seems minor, it often can get worse if untreated and as it gets worse, it will only take more work to make it better.
If rehab only prepares their body able to handle daily activities, your child might not be ready for the demands of sport and could lead to further injury. Not only is this physically demanding, but it’s also mentally draining as well.
Did you know?
Many states (including Illinois) have direct access to physical therapy. That means you do not need to get a referral from a doctor to go to PT. This comes in handy when you have a youth athlete who is complaining of those nagging pains. A sports PT who works with youth athletes knows about the differences in injuries sustained in adolescents compared to adults and knows how to screen the athlete for referral to an orthopedic for imaging if needed.
And if not, they can begin receiving treatment immediately, with no delay. Going to a PT first in these situations can help the athlete get care sooner and save you money in the long run!
Besides taking my child to a physical therapist, what can I do to support their health and recovery?
○ Make sure your athlete has a carb snack to eat one hour before practice/competition and be sure they have a good, balanced post-practice/competition meal within 2 hours.
○ Watch out for mood changes and increased lack of interest. This may be an early sign of burnout which can increase injury risks as well as sport dropout.
○ Mental health. There is a growing movement of awareness of this in athletes, but it still needs more awareness. Often, there is this thought as an athlete that you can’t show weakness and you have to be strong and just fight through. Athletes often think that mental health issues fall into that “showing weakness”/“not being strong” category. They need to know it does not mean they are weak. It is in fact the opposite. Strength is found in vulnerability and asking for help.
On female athletes:
● Female athletes overall have fewer opportunities for sports at all levels compared to males. This means fewer role models!
● In athletics, it’s often thought to be normal to not get a regular period. IT IS NOT NORMAL. In fact, this is often a sign the athlete is undernourished or may have another underlying disorder or hormonal imbalance. It is normal for periods to be irregular for girls 1-2 years after their first period but should be normal after this. I would encourage teens and adults alike to track their period.
● I urge you to think twice about hormonal birth control to treat abnormal periods. The hormones used in birth control are not hormones that naturally occur in our body therefore, it is treating the symptom but not the underlying cause. While there are certain cases that this may be the best route, the majority of females would benefit more from alternative treatments. Additional treatments can include acupuncture and herbal medicine doctors, functional medicine doctors, and nutritionists.
So many struggles for athletes can be avoided with a proper care team, but Dr. Grams takes a focused and curated approach to each of her patient’s care.
“I approach each patient with an open mind and caring heart to work with you and create a plan to reach your goals and be able to get back to what is important to YOU. A diagnosis shouldn’t define you it’s something you are going through.”
For more information about Dr. Grams and Empower Women’s Health & Wellness, visit empowerwhw.com .