Girls all over America watched gymnast Gabby Douglas flip and spin across the Olympic mat a couple years ago, dreaming they might one day reach that level of elite gymnastics.
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But competitive gymnastics brings with it significant risk for injury, including strains and sprains as well as stress fractures to the back, wrists and ankles.
“The nature of the sport lends itself to those kinds of injuries,” says sports and exercise medicine physician Kim Gladden, MD. “One of the best things you can do to prevent injury is to make sure your kids are well-trained, exhibiting proper technique, and are strong and flexible enough to be performing the movements required.”
There are precautions parents and their child athletes should take, including the following four tips:
1. Get a good coach in the right gym
“With any sport, finding the right coach is critical,” Dr. Gladden says. “You want someone who’s very familiar with proper technique who won’t allow your child to progress until they learn it.” Take a tour of any gym you’re considering, making sure that the equipment is in good working order, the floors are right for the sport and there’s adequate supervision.
2. Protect the back
“Gymnastics involves a lot of core strength, and if your child isn’t properly conditioned, this could lead to back sprains and strains in particular,” says Dr. Gladden. Also common in sports requiring back extension — such as gymnastics, dance and volleyball — are stress fractures to the vertebrae known as spondylolysis. Kids should follow the guidance of a coach or trainer on the right exercises that will build core strength and flexibility.
3. Don’t skimp on rehab
Kids can often recover well and return to gymnastics after an injury, as long as they rehab properly, Dr. Gladden says. Lots of products claim to support joints and prevent injury, but “no product can make up for a lack of technique,” she says. Lack of proper technique sets gymnasts up for injury. Dr. Gladden does prescribe flexible back braces as a common treatment after a back sprain, strain or fracture to remind the child to avoid overextension while he or she is healing.
4. Be sure gymnastics is right for your child
Repeated gymnastics injuries may be a sign that kids are in the wrong sport. “Different body types lend themselves to different sports,” Dr. Gladden says. “Elite gymnastics is not for everyone.”