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Signs and Symptoms of Sarcoma Can Mimic Sports Pains

By Howard Rosenthal, MD

Joint pain, muscle soreness and sprains are a way of life for high school athletes. Most of the time the injury is minor, and the pain and swelling swiftly subside.

In some instances, when pain and swelling persist, there may be something more serious at play. Tumors of the musculoskeletal system, both benign and malignant (known as sarcomas), frequently occur in the first 2 decades of life. Symptoms typically involve pain in or around the joints and muscle aches.

Most tumors that arise in the bones of young athletes are not cancerous. Even so, they can pose significant joint problems including fractures, pain, swelling and stiffness. Often, sarcomas are insidious, mildly painful areas with no perceptible mass. Athletes might attribute the pain to exercise or training related to a sport or competition.

When pain and swelling are persistent, and unusual for the type of injury suffered, athletes should see a physician. X-rays can reveal whether a tumor is present.

Surgical and nonsurgical treatment

Many musculoskeletal tumors can be treated without surgery. Read how interventional radiology specialists treated a pea-sized tumor inside 14-year-old Hunter Cashatt’s shinbone without surgery.

Tumors that could cause the bone to break or lead to deformity are commonly treated with surgery. Surgery consists a of a biopsy and tumor removal followed by bone grafting or other reconstructive options to preserve limb appearance and function.

Surgery is often outpatient, or the patient may spend a day or so in the hospital. During recovery, patients must limit their activities and sports participation.

Not every athlete with pain should be evaluated for a bone tumor. A physician can make that determination. Most athletes with benign or malignant bone tumors return to the field and compete as fiercely as before, performing remarkable feats in their sport of choice.

Being in the high school with this age group gives us a prime opportunity to catch signs and symptoms that might otherwise be dismissed as normal aches and pains of growing or being athletic. – Megan Burki

Certified athletic trainer, Sports Medicine and Performance Center, Shawnee Mission East High School

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