Feb 9, 2007

The Most Dangerous Sport

Sports are about playing hard, competition and, yes, getting hurt. Everyone knows it's all part of the game.

"Injuries are a part of sport," says Champ L. Baker, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hughston Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who is president of the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine.

But some sports are harder on the body than others. A lot harder. In 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated the highest numbers of sport-related injures were reported for basketball (409,799), football (376,115) and bicycling (317,041), says Arlene Flecha, a CPSC spokeswoman. That's not counting minor injuries that didn't require medical attention. The deadliest: riding an all-terrain vehicle, according to the CPSC. The sport accounted for 740 deaths in 2003, one-third of which were children under 16.

In Pictures: The Most Dangerous Sports

What's changed is that what used to be a problem just for men--who traditionally dominated dangerous sports--is increasingly a problem for both sexes. These days, women and men participate equally, especially at younger levels, which means they get hurt at similar rates, says Susan Joy, the orthopedic surgeon who heads the women's sports health center at the Cleveland Clinic. "There's gender equity in the injuries for the most part," she says.

In response, women are also getting smarter about training correctly and at high enough levels, she says. Medical research is now focusing on ways to reduce injuries for women athletes, concentrating on factors like strength, conditioning and hormones.

But despite the preparation, some sports are just dangerous. Take football. In the 1960s, football-player deaths from head injuries were an increasingly common occurrence. Better-designed football helmets helped the injury rate go down in the 1970s. But then the rate started to climb again. Players, it seemed, felt fearless in their new helmets, and they weren't afraid to tackle opponents by charging right into them with the top of their heads.

This move, called spear tackling, wreaks havoc on the head and spine. "The force would go to the neck, you'd get these compression fractures, the bone would poke into the spinal cord, and you'd get quadriplegia," says Barry Boden, an orthopedic surgeon in Rockville, Md., who studies catastrophic sports injuries.

A Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon, Joseph S. Torg of Temple University's medical school, was the first to study this problem after 1975, when a dozen local football players suffered serious spinal injuries, with one dying and eight becoming quadriplegics. Torg recommended teaching athletes not to hit others with the top of their heads, instead training them to protect their spines. While there is still an average of six such injuries annually in the last 13 years, the safety campaign has clearly worked.

Now, this kind of injury has become thankfully rare. "If you look at the actual chances of becoming a quadriplegic from football, it's one out of 192,000 players," Boden says. Injuries to ankles, knees, hands and so on, that's another story.

Other risky sports: ice hockey, skydiving, scuba diving, cheerleading and gymnastics. Cheerleading and gymnastics? Absolutely, experts say. Cheerleading is actually the most injury-prone sport for women. Being tossed high into the air by teammates is risky business for the head and spine, and ankle injuries are common.

But whether it's football, cycling or cheerleading, doctors say there are ways to keep safe.

Rule No. 1: Don't get in over your head. "You have to compete at a level at which you're accustomed, and that's compatible with your level of talent," says Edward McFarland, an orthopedic surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Train slowly, working your way up to more strenuous play, and make sure you know the proper technique: Don't hit that double-black-diamond trail if you've just learned how to ski.

Good gear is also key. "To reduce the risk of serious head injury and even save your life, wear the right type of helmet, when appropriate," Flecha says.

Rule 2: Let things heal. After an injury, serious or not, stay on the sidelines until you're better, or you risk doing even more damage. "The smartest advice is, if something bothers you during or after, stop or do less, and don't do anything until it feels 100% better," says orthopedic surgeon Robert Marx, the orthopedic director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery.

Still, physicians caution that parents shouldn't over-hype the dangers of sports. The idea should be to play carefully, but definitely play. "You can't be overly injury-conscious, because you may lead children away from sports," Marx says. "The biggest problem we're having is that kids aren't doing enough, and there are high rates of childhood obesity."

*This article is taken from www.forbes.com get updated related news, subscribe here

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