When Safety Is the Name of the Game: Every Year, Millions of Young Athletes End Up in the Hospital. What Parents and Kids Can Do to Prevent Sports Injuries
Noonan, David, Newsweek
Byline: David Noonan
Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, kids gotta play. And that's what they do. Each year, an estimated 30 million young Americans, high-school age and under, participate in organized sports like football, basketball and soccer. Millions more race around every day on bikes, scooters, skates and skateboards and climb, jump and swing on playground equipment. The benefits of all that physical activity far outweigh the risks, especially these days, when obesity and inactivity plague the videogame generation.
Still, sports and recreation-related injuries are an ever-present threat to young athletes and a constant concern to their parents. With good reason. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, more kids receive medical attention for sports injuries each year than for injuries in automobile accidents. During the 12 months ending June 2001, nearly 2 million kids 14 and under were treated in emergency rooms for sports and recreation injuries. (Strains and sprains are the most common, followed by fractures.) The rate of sports injury among kids 5 to 14 is nearly three times the rate for people 25 to 44.
Those numbers add up to a major public-health issue, and the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and others are promoting a variety of guidelines and strategies to reduce them. "We want kids to get up off the couch, we're big cheerleaders for that," says Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a sports-injury expert at the CDC's Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "But be realistic in how you're doing it. Make conscious choices about injury prevention. Don't just take it for granted."
Most kids get their first lumps riding their bikes and cavorting on the playground. The CDC estimates that more than 330,000 children from 5 to 14 are injured while bicycling each year. An additional 219,000 in that age group are hurt on monkey bars and other climbing equipment, swings and slides. Wearing a helmet that fits properly is the surest way to avoid serious injury on a bike. (Helmets are also the key to safer skateboarding, which accounts for about 50,000 injuries among people under 20 each year, including many head injuries.) At the playground, where 60 percent of injuries are due to falls, a soft surface to land on is a top priority. Wood chips, shredded tires and sand are good; packed-down soil is bad.
Organized sports, including football, are generally less risky for the 10-and-under crowd because the kids usually aren't big enough or fast enough to make collisions a serious problem. But that all changes when the hormones kick in. "At puberty, children gain muscle mass, speed and weight," says pediatric orthopedic surgeon J. Andy Sullivan, coeditor of the book "Care of the Young Athlete." "And the combination of those things allows them to run together hard enough to hurt each other."
There is no reliable way to compare the relative risks of various sports because the CDC doesn't track the level of participation. It knows how many people are injured playing basketball, for example (an estimated 977,000 each year, all ages), but it doesn't know how many people are playing the game, or for how long or how many days a week. "Basketball is one of the most common sports in all ages and areas of the U.S.," says Gilchrist, "and so just because it has the highest number of injuries doesn't mean that it's riskier. …