Few things can affect you or your kid’s enjoyment of gymnastics like an unexpected pain or injury. Not only can it keep you off the mat in the short-term, but they can easily persist or return down the track if not managed properly.
A thorough rehabilitation program is clearly an important piece of the puzzle, but it’s easier if we just prevent them in the first place!
Interestingly, the days of blaming bad luck, “growing pains”, or overuse for our gymnastic injuries may now be behind us. Instead, a small shift in perspective can reveal a rich underbelly of relatively hidden predisposing factors and, more importantly, things we can change and improve upon to increase our chances of avoiding injury. Accidents still happen of course, but the more prepared we are going in to an accident, the better our chances are of coming out the otherside unscathed.
And as the team here at Phyx You Physiotherapy in Port Macquarie begin a new relationship with the Port Macquarie Gymnatics Club, we thought it could be a great opportunity to introduce ourselves and do our best to help in this regard.
So let’s learn a little more about gymnastic injuries, and what’s important to focus on!
Most Common Gymnastics Related Injuries
A 2015 study looked at the rate and type of injuries sustained at a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division one level over the course of 10 years. Interestingly, it found the following:
- 441 total injuries sustained (240 male, 201 female) over 10 years
- 48,801 total gymnastic-related practices, competitions or games recorded
- 8% injury rate for men, 9% injury rate for women
- most common injury site for women was the foot and ankle (39%)
- most common injury site for men was the hand and wrist (24%)
- surgery was required for 24% of male injuries and 9% of female injuries
- injury rates were lower with more experienced athletes
The study also highlights that men may suffer more of their hand and wrist injuries on the high bar or pommel horse, compared to women who may injure their lower limbs more on the floor, balance beam or vault.
It’s worth noting that the raw numbers might look a little different for a younger, more recreational gymnast when compared to these NCAA athletes, but it does a great job of highlighting a very real injury risk for gymnasts.
And when trying to understand how to prevent these injuries there are a number of avenues to explore.
Tips to Prevent Gymnastic Injuries:
1. Develop Adequate Strength
Strength is important for most sports and activities, but you could argue it’s just that little bit more important for gymnastics. Long hours throwing one’s self around in the gym has the potential to create excess stress on younger, developing bones.
The greater our strength, the more likely we are to normalise the forces going through our body. If you, or your kids have a history of recurring injuries or issues, this may suggest a lack of strength somewhere. So in the name of decreasing the risk of these issues, it’s important to locate where that lack of sufficient strength may be and correct it over time.
Similarly, we want to make sure you have strength is the right areas. One of the best things about gymnastics is the ability to build great amounts of functional, or whole body strength. But sometimes we also need to negate the effects of the modern world by focusing on developing strong, robust core, shoulder and hip muscles.
2. Value Muscle Control and Technique
Muscle strength is clearly important, but so is making sure those muscles work at the right time and in the right way. Muscle control is essentially nailing good gymnastic technique but also displaying good overall body mechanics.
For example, take a look at the jumping and landing images below.
The image on the left highlights a young lady displaying great lower limb landing mechanics. Her feet are straight and her knees are staying apart. On the right, we can see another young lady landing with more of a “knees in” mechanic. Unfortunately, this may increase the chances of a whole range of hip, knee, shin, ankle and foot injuries – just by moving slightly differently over a long period of time.
Now, it’s important to understand that both of these young ladies could probably be considered strong and powerful. However, its how they use that strength that counts. The young lady on the right might have the capacity to keep her knees apart when doing a regular squat, yet may not posess the required strength, range of motion, or control through her hips to do the same at higher speeds or velocities with something like the vault. Interestingly, it can also just be an issue of not knowing this is happening, and could be addressed by just paying attention to it a lttle more.
The value of good muscle control and gymnastic technique is that it attempts to use our tissue in the most optimal way. The more we can do this – at any speed or duration of movement, the better chance we have to avoid injury.
3. Adequate Range of Motion
This may seem like a strange tip considering gymnasts are often thought of as being flexible. However, there are a number of “hidden” restrictions gymnasts are succeptible to, just like everone else.
And while you may identify as a gymnast based on the amount of time you devote to your craft, this may still pale in comparison to the amount of time you’re forced to do something like sitting each day for school, work, or leisure.
In short, we need to make sure you or your kids aren’t bringing any hidden issues into gynmastics from your day-to-day life. Things like hip tightness from sitting, ankle stiffness from heeled shoes or thongs, tight shoulders or a stiff low back from slouchy postures, etc, all have the potential to short-circuit even the most robust gynmastic techinques given the right (or wrong) circumstances.
So while gymnastics is certainlty a big tick for mobility, we need to make sure this balances out well with the rest of your non-gymnastics life.
4. Value Adeuqate Rest and Recovery
This is probably an obvious one, but approrpriate rest and recovery is vital for any athlete not only wanting to prevent future injuries, but optimise performance.
Moments of rest and recovery allow the body to adapt to what you’ve been doing. Our muscle and tissue gains don’t occur while we’re being active, it happens when we aren’t. In a way, we need training to tell our bodies that we value something (practicing a skill) or that it’s not quite good enough (fatigue through exercise) for it to then adapt in the direction we want. We then take those signals home with us and hope our body does something about them – most often while we sleep.
So it goes without saying that prioritising good duration and quality sleep will go a long way to optimising injury risk and performance.
Here are a few basic tips to consider:
- Try and eliminate as much light from your room as possible
- Avoid the melatonin-suppressing blue light from technology as early as possible
- Activate the in-built blue-lighter filter on most TVs, computers, laptops and phones
- Aim to keep the bedroom a little cooler
- Try some foam rolling or ball massage exercises just before getting into bed to help down-regulate your body before sleep
- Engage with some slow deep breathing for the same reasons as above
5. Proper Nutrition and Hydration
Like adequate rest and recovery, we need to do our best to supply the body with what it needs to thrive if we want the best chance of reducing injury potential.
Dehydration and poor nutrition have the potential to leave the body more threatened, restricted and inflammed and inherently more suceptible to injury and poor performance. Although outside the scope of Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology, there are some broader, common sense ideas to consider when choosing what you, or your kids use as fuel:
- Is it real, unprocessed food?
- How much water are you drinking each day?
- Are you eating and drinking enough throughout the day?
- Do the foods you eat support muscle or tissue growth, and recovery?
These questions are definitely broad, but still a good starting point to consider. It’s common for most people to have specific dietry needs or individual intolerances so its well worth exploring this with a Nutririonist or Dietician for more information.
The Sneaky Benefits of Injury Prevention
Obviously the main benefit of attempting to prevent injuries is… well… preventing injuries.
But there’s so much more here than just stopping a hypothetical future issue from occuring.
Interestingly, injury prevention and performance enhancement sit on the same spectrum. Just at different ends.
Excitingly, the things we might ask you to do to decrease your risk of injury, are often the exact same things that can enhance the function of your body and optimise it’s ability to perform. So whether you are enamoured by the concept of injury prevention or not, it’s hard to find anyone that isn’t hapy to become a better version of themselves with relatively little effort.
Is that stiff ankle changing the way you load your Achilles? It may also be robbing you of some power and control. Either way, we can work to improve it and reap the benefits.
In short, there is much we can do to decrease the risk of gymnastic-related injuries and issues. Yes accidents occur, but as mentioned before, the more robust you can be going into an unplanned situation the better prepared you’ll be to come out unscathed.
As a result, injury prevention is often a rich, positive and ultimately performance-enhancing discussion. The more we can optimise your strength, muscle control, mobility, technique and supporting habits, the less likely you may be to succumb to injury and be one step closer to reaching your athletic potential.
If you’d like one of our Physiotherapist or Exercise Physiologists to work with you to uncover where your risks may be and where you can improve performance, please consider giving us a call on (02) 6584 5005! We look forward to seeing you in the gym!