June 18, 2003 -- Physical activity is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, but a new study suggests that living an active life may also come at a price. Researchers found an estimated 7 million Americans seek medical attention for sports-related injuries each year -- a figure up to 42% higher than previous estimates based on emergency room visits alone.
And those sprains and strains may be costing the health-care system and economy in a variety of ways. According to the CDC study, one fifth of schoolchildren and more than one quarter of working adults who suffered a sports injury that required medical attention missed one or more days of school or work because of the injury.
Researchers say the findings show that as physical activity is increasingly promoted as a critical part of a healthy lifestyle, sports injuries are becoming an important public health issue for both children and adults. As a result, injury prevention efforts need to go beyond targeting children and start addressing the risks faced by physically active adults as well.
"Everyone needs to be aware that any activity can lead to injury, and choosing an activity that is appropriate for you is important," says researcher Julie Gilchrist, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC's injury center. "And people should also be aware that while you might enjoy a certain activity, there is most often a way to do it more safely."
Sports Injuries Hurt Adults, Too
Researchers say most previous studies have looked at sports injuries among children and adolescents, baby boomers, and those injuries that resulted in a trip to the emergency room. But this study looked at sports injury rates across all ages that required medical attention of any kind, such as at a doctor's office, urgent care clinic, or emergency room.
Using information gathered by the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the study examined injuries associated with a sport or recreational activity that occurred from 1997 to 1999. The results appear in the June issue of Injury Prevention.
Overall, researchers found an average of about 26 sports injuries requiring medical attention were reported per 1,000 people each year. Strains and sprains were the most frequent type of sports injuries reported, followed by fractures (broken bones), cuts and other open wounds, and bumps and bruises.
Males had nearly twice the rate of sports injuries compared with females, and most injuries occurred at a sports facility (31%), at school (20%), or around the home (17%). Sports injuries were most often the result of being struck by an object, falling, or overextension of a joint or muscle.
Nearly two-thirds of those sports injuries were reported among people between the ages of 5 and 24, and injury rates were highest among the 5- to 14-year-old age group, with an average of 59 injuries per 1,000 children.
But one-fourth of the sports-related injuries occurred among adults 25-44 years old, an age group commonly overlooked by most injury prevention efforts, says Gilchrist. The type of sport or recreational activity responsible for the highest number of injuries also varied by age, and the top five injury-causing activities among the three age groups studied were:
- 5-14 years -- Pedal cycling, basketball, football, playground equipment, baseball/softball
- 15-24 years -- Basketball, football, exercising, soccer, recreational sports
- Over 25 years -- Recreational sports, exercising, basketball, pedal cycling, baseball/softball
Recreational sports include racquet sports such as tennis and badminton, as well as golf, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain climbing, and other non-team leisure sports.
Taking the Aches and Pains out of Physical Activity
To reduce the risk of sports-related injuries while still reaping the benefits of an active, healthy lifestyle, Gilchrist says it's important for adults to pick a recreational activity or sport that's appropriate for their physical capabilities, age, competition level, and skill.
But sports injury specialist Jon Schriner, DO, says many adult athletes seem to be stuck in a 16-year-old mindset, which can put them at risk.
"They play like they are 16, but excuse me, you're 30, 40, 50, etc." says Schriner, who is medical director of the Michigan Center for Athletic Medicine in Flint, Mich. "So they play with the same vigor forever, and you can't tell an active person to back off."
He says the big issue between the recreational adult athlete and younger athletes who play in supervised sports is in the level of preparticipation preparation and supervision they receive. Before student athletes step on the playing field under the coach's supervision, they usually receive aerobic conditioning, strength training, and flexibility training.
"So the adult athlete doesn't have the flexibility they had when they were younger, they don't have the strength training, and their aerobic capacity is at a couch potato level," Schriner tells WebMD. "The adult athlete only remembers what the coach told him in high school, and he's unsupervised, so he goes out willy-nilly."
Schriner recommends the following steps to reduce the risk of sports-related injuries:
- Before starting a new physical activity, prepare yourself with some aerobic, strength, and flexibility training.
- Invest in a good pair of athletic shoes designed to provide the right kind of support for the particular activity or sport.
- Find out what safety equipment is available for the activity, and use it.
- Get some coaching. Check out books and magazines that provide training tips and instruction, or consult a professional sports trainer or coach for a lesson.
Gilchrist says various federal agencies, including the CDC, also have guidelines on how to get started with a new physical activity or sport. But she says many sports injuries among adults could be prevented if parents simply followed the same safety rules as their children, such as wearing a helmet while bicycling.