Many more Americans than previously believed are injured each year in sporting and recreational activities.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, conducting the broadest investigation to date of U.S. sports and recreational injuries, has found that about 7 million people per year seek medical advice or treatment related to physical activities.
Previous studies, based primarily on data from hospital emergency room visits, underestimated the stress on the health-care system created by sports and recreational injuries, the study's authors said. The researchers found, for example, that earlier studies of injuries among Americans age 5 to 24 underestimated the number of injuries by 42 percent.
Injuries in all age groups cost an estimated $500 million annually in medical services. The injuries translated into at least one lost school day for students in about a fifth of the cases and one or more work absences for adults, the new study said.
Basketball and bicycling, as individual activities, produced the greatest number of injuries across all age groups. Basketball was the leading cause of injury for 15- to 24-year-olds, while bicycling led injuries for 5- to 14-year-olds. Meanwhile, a broad category called recreational sports, which included tennis, racquetball, hiking and other largely outdoor pursuits, was responsible for the most injuries for those 25 and older.
The most common types of injuries were muscle strains and sprains, which accounted for 31 percent of all injuries.
Though supportive of efforts promoting the benefits of physical activity, the study recommended a greater emphasis on preventive measures as a means of reducing injury rates.
"We want to encourage people to be physically active," said Dr. Ellen Sogolow, a behavioral scientist with the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. "But maybe the message that's been missing is that they should be protective as well."
Slowing down the rate of injuries is often as easy as putting on a bicycle helmet or wearing protective eye gear for racquetball, said Sogolow. And yet, many athletes are hesitant to do so because they haven't been educated about their safety benefits. Just as important as wearing protective gear, especially for older athletes, is proper stretching and conditioning before playing sports.
"Participation in sports, recreation games and activities should lead to better health and greater physical fitness," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan with the CDC. "Not a visit to the emergency department."
The study, published in the June issue of Injury Prevention, was based on a survey of 40,000 people and covered the years 1997 through 1999.