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Gymnastics Safety: Many Injuries Are Preventable

When you think of sports injuries, often the contact sports or sports with speed come to mind - sports like football, lacrosse or ice hockey. Many parents often assume that these sports have the highest injury rates out of all the sports in which kids participate. If you look at emergency room visits, however, one of the sports at the top of the list for girls is not a contact sport at all but an individual sport: gymnastics.

The April 2008 issue of Pediatrics reported that 425,900 children ages 6 to 17 were treated in US emergency room from 1990-2005 for gymnastics related injuries. That's 26,600 injuries a year! School and sports facilities were the most common locations followed by home. The injuries covered the gamut from head and neck injuries to broken arms, legs, lacerations and sprains.

As the study points out, one of the biggest concerns with gymnastics is the young ages of the participants coupled with the long hours and intensity of practices. The impact of this wear and tear on young, developing girls is significant and one of the set-ups for injury and long-term problems as a result of injury.

At this point you may be thinking that the problem must be having young girls on the balance beam or uneven bars. I would have thought so, too. However, the study showed a very different reality. It turns out that most of the injuries are from floor activities: handsprings and flips, cartwheels, handstands. Dismounts were a very small percentage of the injuries but were on the list.

The results of this study place gymnastics in the same injury league with cheerleading, soccer and basketball for girls. The most concerning aspect of the results is the age relationship. The majority of injuries occurred in the younger girl, 6-11 years of age, and at their homes. I agree with the author's of the study that unsupervised gymnastics is not the wisest idea in this age group but I'm not surprised by the results. Quick growth rates coupled with a lack of coordination make this group particularly vulnerable to injury in general, but especially in sports like gymnastics where the skills are especially challenging and require a great deal of coordination to master. This group also does not have the judgment on their own to know their limits making unsupervised "practice" of their skills especially risky.

Developmentally appropriate programs needed

This study by no means suggests you should not enroll your children in gymnastics programs before the age of 12. What this study helps us understand is that kids younger than 12 require programs with a more developmentally appropriate design. What does that really mean? It means that to really avoid injury, gymnastics coaches have to understand the unique developmental needs of kids ages 6-11, emotionally and physically. They need to understand how these kids' bodies grow and work. And, how kids this age think. The latter is very important because these kids can be coached to "not try this at home" when taught a new skill.

Since the majority of injuries occurred at homes and not gyms, one of the best ways to avoid injuries in your gymnast is to do what you can to prevent your gymnast to not "practice" their skills in the back yard, friend's house, driveways, bedrooms or anywhere that is not supervised by a properly trained gymnastics coach. Better to face the wrath of an upset child than to have to help your child through at least 4-6 weeks of injury rehabilitation for a likely avoidable injury.

Many parents wonder about how to evaluate a program their kids are enrolled in or one they are thinking of enrolling in. Here's what to look for:

  • Certified coaches. Make sure the coaches are well trained and top in their fields, such as belonging to the United States Gymnastics Association and having appropriate coaching and instructor certification.

  • Having fun is first and foremost. You also want to make sure the coaches have an understanding of child development and the importance of teaching for fun - very important aspects in any program for this age group. Talking to the coaches will give you an idea if they have this philosophy.

  • Low injury rate. Ask about the gym's injury rate. Obviously, you'd want that to be a very, very low number but any gym that claims to have an unusual amount of injuries is one to avoid.

Once a week is enough

Finally, one of the best ways to avoid injury is to not overdo a good thing. Kids in this age group really do not need to participate in gymnastics more than once a week. More than that puts too much wear and tear on the growing musculoskeletal system and lead to overuse injuries. Even if your child claims that gymnastics is her life, stand firm. There is an entire childhood to explore with gymnastics being only one part of that for now. The flip side of the coin is that if gymnastics is destined to be her sports life, she'll never be able to explore that later when the competition gets more interesting and she has the skills, maturity and coordination to really perform well if she has an injury now that precludes later participation.


Gwenn Schurgin O'Keeffe, MD is a pediatrician living in the Boston area and the founder and Editor-In-Chief of www.Pediatricsnow.com.

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