Injuries from sports and exercise are surprisingly common, more so than injuries from traffic accidents, according to a new nationwide survey. And with such trends as the weekend warrior phenomenon and the increasing competitiveness of youth sports, experts predict even more injuries in the future.
About 7 million people receive medical treatment or counseling for sports and recreation-related injuries each year in the United States, the new report found.
The study, based on data provided by thousands of Americans participating in the National Health Interview Survey from 1997 to 1999, is the first to take a nationwide look at all sports and exercise injuries brought to the attention of health-care professionals, and not just those in emergency rooms.
Still, the findings probably underestimate the number of injuries because they don’t include those self-treated at home, says study author Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“Physical activity is incredibly important as part of a healthy lifestyle,” she says. “But at the same time, people need to be aware that as they participate in these activities there is a risk of injury.”
Overall, there were an estimated 26 injuries per 1,000 people each year, according to results published in the journal Injury Prevention. Most injuries (64 percent) occurred among children and adults ages 5 to 24. And men were more than twice as likely as women to be injured.
Basketball injuries were most common, followed by those from cycling, recreational sports (such as tennis, racquetball, golf and hiking), exercising (including walking and jogging), football, baseball/softball, soccer and skating.
Cycling was the biggest source of injury for young kids, while basketball accounted for most injuries among teens and young adults. Those over 25 were most likely to be injured during recreational sports.
Strains and sprains accounted for 31 percent of injuries, while 22 percent involved fractures. And of the 1.1 million annual head or neck injuries, 17 percent were potentially serious internal head injuries such as concussions.
In addition, 20 percent of kids lost one or more school days each year because of injuries and 28 percent of adults lost one or more work days.
Injuries expected to rise
While there have been few such large-scale studies on sports and exercise injuries, experts say the available data and trends point to a growing problem.
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Previous research, for instance, showed that injuries are on the rise among baby boomers. From 1991 to 1998, emergency room visits for sports injuries increased 33 percent among Americans born between 1946 and 1964, according to data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The weekend warrior approach to physical activity, particularly among aging adults who attempt to play at the same level they did in high school, is a significant factor, says Dr. William O. Roberts, president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine and an associate professor of family practice at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
And kids are playing sports like soccer and basketball at earlier ages, as young as 4, when their motor skills may not be up to the task, he says. As a result, injuries in youngsters are expected to jump.
“We play sports harder than we have ever played sports before and we play it at a younger age, so the intensity is really ramping up,” says Steve Marshall, an assistant professor of epidemiology and orthopedics at the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Marshall says he’s particularly worried about kids “looking for a ticket to college,” who may push themselves too hard in an effort to secure an athletic scholarship.
Another issue is that health officials, trying to encourage the public to exercise more, may be undermining some of their efforts by not also providing enough guidance on how to exercise safely, Marshall maintains.
It’s known that people who are injured are at greater risk for re-injury — and for eventually throwing in the towel. That raises concerns that injured exercisers will shun future physical activity, perpetuating the coach potato culture.
“The drive to get people going is not enough,” Marshall says. “We also need to give them guidance and proper rehabilitation.”
But even with the threat of injury, the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle are far greater, says Roberts.
“The risks to not being physically active are epidemic levels of obesity and diseases of inactivity that go along with it,” he says. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are associated with various health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
To stay safe, Roberts urges use of appropriate gear, such as helmets and wrist guards, by both kids and adults. And following the rules of a particular game is also key to avoiding injury, he says.
A healthy dose of common sense helps, too.
“When you start a new activity, start gradually and build gradually,” he says.
Gilchrist says many injuries result from people pushing beyond their physical limits.
“It’s always better to do something than nothing,” she says. “But you need to be smart about the choices.”
Sedentary people, for instance, should walk or swim before they jog or play football, Gilchrist says. And for those with repeated injuries from a particular sport such as basketball, she says, it may be best to consider switching to another activity to prevent further injury.
Dr. Henry Goitz, chief of sports medicine at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo, says lack of conditioning and failure to warm up are to blame for many injuries.
He advocates both stretching and some cardiovascular exercise, such as stationary biking, before full-blown activity.
“It’s paramount to be able to spend 10 minutes at the front end of an activity for a warm-up,” he says. “It keeps you out of my office.”
People who do sustain injuries should get appropriate medical care to prevent life-long complications, Goitz says, particularly if there is significant pain or a joint is difficult to move through the full range of motion. A full recovery may involve weeks or even months of rehab.
When it comes to youngsters, he says, parents have to be on the alert for signs of trouble.
“When your kids come home and they’re hurting and it’s not fun, beware of the coach,” he says.
Parents also need to be careful not to push their children too hard, Goitz cautions.
“Let them be kids,” he says, “and let them enjoy the game.”
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