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Sport Specific Injuries: Gymnastics

Gymnastics was one of only nine sports to be included in the inaugural modern Olympic Games back in 1896, though contemporary audiences might not have recognized it as such (athletes competed in calisthenics, rope climbing, and track & field events). Since that time, gymnastics has become a sport in which contrasting elements – power and beauty, force and grace – combine to create gravity defying routines of flips, twists, and tumbles. To do this, athletes must be strong, flexible, and fearless, but even the best gymnast will find themselves injured from time to time.

Due to the intense, acrobatic nature of the sport, gymnastics ranks second only to cheerleading as the leading cause of serious or catastrophic sports injuries in female athletes (according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research). As the sport becomes more complex and more competitive, gymnasts of both genders are starting the sport at earlier and earlier ages, practicing more hours, and progressing to more difficult routines more quickly. For girls especially, the pressure to advance at a younger age can be high since the physical changes that accompany puberty (increased height, changing weight distribution, and a shift in center of gravity) can hinder performance. These elements often combine to create a perfect storm for injury.

Sudden, acute injuries are the ones athletes, parents, and coaches fear most. Traumatic injuries to the head and neck area are constant worries, but tears in the tendons or ligaments of the knees or shoulders, dislocated fingers or elbows, stress fractures, and back strains are also continuous threats. Gymnasts are taught early on how to fall in such a way as to help reduce injury, but this should not be the only precaution taken. In addition to basic safety equipment (such as secured mats, padded floors, and harnesses), athletes can protect themselves with wrist guards, braces, and hand grips. Furthermore, experienced spotters should always be used during new and/or difficult routines.

Though they fortunately lack the drama of a concussion or dislocation, chronic, long-term injuries are no less dangerous to the athletic career of a gymnast. Also known as overuse injuries, the cause of these ailments is exactly what you’d expect it to be – performing the same action over and over again without allowing the body to recover. Overuse injuries are typically expressed as tendonitis, but they can also show up as chronic fatigue, sleeplessness, irritability, and an unexplained decrease in performance (this is called overtraining syndrome). Unless the body is allowed to rest and heal, an overuse injury will eventually force the gymnast to the sidelines.

Happily there are some steps gymnasts can take to reduce the likelihood of suffering an overuse injury:

• Get at least 8 hours of sleep every night (more if needed).
Warm-up and cool down properly before and after each practice and workout.
• Gymnasts are encouraged to be very lean, but make sure your diet contains enough protein, fat, and calories to fuel your activity as well as help your body repair itself afterwards.
• Engage in balanced strength training, including programs to target any specific weaknesses or strength imbalances you may have.
Stay hydrated. Dehydration causes muscles to lose flexibility.
• At the first sign of an injury, use R.I.C.E. (Rest, Ice Compression, and Elevation). Remember that the longer you’ve had an injury, the more time it will take to recover from it, so it’s better to take a little time off practice now than to be forced to take a lot of time away later.

Gymnastics is a thrilling sport, both to watch and to participate in. It’s worth it to know how to prevent injury so that your season can be a perfect 10. Until next time, keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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