Right up there with cheerleading, soccer, and basketball, gymnastics is one of the leading causes of injuries among young female athletes. According to the first national study of injuries in the popular sport, gymnastics sends more than 26,000 kids to the ER every year.
Looking at injury data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), researchers found that from 1990 to 2005:
- more than 425,000 6- to 17-year-olds were hurt while participating in gymnastics
- most (82%) of the kids with gymnastics-related injuries were girls
- the average age of injured young gymnasts was 11
And kids age 6 to 11:
- were more likely to get hurt at home, where they're often unsupervised and practice on hard surfaces (instead of mats) with no "spotters"
- sustained the most upper-extremity injuries, probably because gymnasts aren't "taught to fall in a manner that diffuses the impact of the fall across as much of the body surface as possible; consequently, individuals have a tendency to stiffen up and brace themselves with their arms during a fall," says the study
Strains and sprains were the reason for the majority (nearly half) of the ER visits, with a third due to fractures and dislocations. Surprisingly, concussions and closed head injuries — likely a common worry of parents of young gymnasts — were the least common cause of trips to the emergency room (less than 2%).
Fortunately, nearly all (97%) of the gymnasts' injuries weren't serious — kids were usually treated and sent right back home to recuperate.
What This Means to You
Gymnastics offers a fantastic way for kids of all ages to stay fit, especially those who enjoy individual sports that emphasize personal performance. As with any sport, though, injuries are always possible.
No matter which sport kids choose, they can lower their risk of getting hurt by following some simple preventive precautions.
Here are five safety rules that apply to young athletes of all ages:
1. Make sure they're prepared. Your kids should:
- be matched for sports according to their skill level, size, and physical and emotional maturity
- get plenty of training before practices and competition — they should know and understand the rules of the sport, their role in it, and what they're capable of and trained to do
- be taught how to avoid injuries for each particular sport (for example, how to slide into base for baseball, tackle an opponent in football, or fall and land the right way during gymnastics)
- not push themselves too hard (or be excessively pushed by you or a coach)
- warm up and cool down with slow, gradual stretching that can help prepare kids' muscles, plus increase their blood flow and muscle temperature
- drink plenty of fluids
- be allowed to rest during practices and games
2. Wear the right gear every time. Talk to coaches about which equipment is needed for which sport, such as:
- helmets (for baseball, softball, hockey, football, biking, in-line skating, and skateboarding). Make sure helmets fit comfortably, but snugly, and that kids always use the right kind for each sport — in other words, no baseball helmets for football!
- protective pads
- athletic cups and supporters (for boys)
- eye protection (like shatterproof goggles for basketball and racquet sports)
- mouth, wrist, elbow, and knee guards
Protective equipment should be approved by the organizations that govern each of the sports — like the Hockey Equipment Certification Council (HECC) or the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) for hockey facemasks. And bicycle helmets should have a safety certification sticker from the CPSC.
Also make sure that what they put on their feet is appropriate (like cleats for football, baseball, softball, and soccer to grip the ground when kids run around).
3. Ensure that all surfaces and equipment provided are safe — that playing fields aren't full of holes and ruts that might cause kids to fall or trip; and that equipment like goals, basketball nets, and gymnastics bars are sturdy and stable. Make sure surfaces for gymnastics are padded to cushion falls. And for high-impact sports (like basketball and running), kids are safer on tracks and wooden basketball courts, which can be more forgiving than surfaces like concrete.
To ensure effectiveness, all equipment also should be checked regularly for safety and properly maintained, too.
4. See that qualified adults always supervise. Coaches should:
- have training in first aid and CPR
- promote young athletes' mental and physical well-being (instead of fostering a win-at-all-costs attitude that may encourage children to play through injury)
- enforce playing rules
- provide spotters for sports like gymnastics and workouts that require heavy weightlifting
- require that safety equipment be used at all times
5. Don't let kids play when they're hurt or still recovering from an injury. Athletes, young and old, are at a much greater risk for being reinjured when they return to the sport before a previous injury has had time to sufficiently heal. When kids get back into the game before completely recovering, it places stress upon the injury and forces the body to compensate for the weakness, which can increase the risk of injuring another body part.
That's why it's so important to get the doctor's OK before letting your kids re-enter their sport after an injury. And once they get the all-clear, make sure they start out gradually, properly warm up and cool down before and after every practice and competition, and let you and their coach know if they feel any pain or discomfort. Explain that easing back into the game at a sensible pace is far better than getting hurt again and possibly missing the whole season.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: April 2008
Source: "Gymnastics-Related Injuries to Children Treated in Emergency Departments in the United States, 1990–2005," Pediatrics, April 2008.