Exercise is important for kids; they need to get outside and move. But there's one form of exercise physicians say needs to be used with caution - the backyard trampoline.
An updated policy statement published in this week's edition of the journal Pediatrics, a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that although trampoline injury rates have steadily been decreasing over the past few years, 98,000 trampoline-related injuries still occurred in 2009, resulting in 3,100 hospitalizations.
Many parents still think these pieces of equipment are toys, researchers say, and they're not.
"I think that it's the whole bouncy and fun aspect that makes parents think these devices are safe," says Dr. Michele Labotz, a sports medicine physician for InterMed in Portland, Maine, and lead author of the trampoline statement. "And they think because the trampoline has this soft mat, kids can't feel the impact. But they do."
The most common trampoline injuries include sprains, strains and bruises. The more dangerous mishaps affect the head and spine. Researchers say 75% of all trampoline injuries happen when a group of people are jumping together.
It also seems the younger the child, the more serious the injury. Doctors say that's because the bones of younger children are softer. These children also jump higher, when a group is on the trampoline, because they weigh less. When they bounce, they hit the mat harder. So hard that 48% of trampoline injuries in small children involve fractures and dislocated joints.
"People don't realize it's all about physics," Labotz said. "If a larger child or adult gets on the trampoline with a 40- or 50-pound youngster, they are sending that child soaring into the air, only to fall down hard on the mat. That's like falling from 5 to 10 feet above the ground onto a hard surface."
The American Academy of Pediatrics wants parents and children to understand that certain moves such as somersaults and flips frequently cause spinal injuries that can lead to permanent health problems. The AAP also suggests homeowners who have trampolines make sure they have insurance that covers trampoline-related injuries.
Parents may think netted trampolines are safer, but that's not the case, the AAP warns, since two-thirds of the reported trampoline injuries happened when a child or adult hit the mat incorrectly. The academy also recommends that if a child is using a trampoline, an adult should be on site supervising.
"We are so good about telling parents about swimming safety. So if we have pool regulations, we should be doing the same with trampolines," notes Labotz. "And as for alternative play equipment, there have been plenty of studies that show that free play is not only good for a child physically, but mentally and yes, creatively. You don't need a lot of fancy devices to keep kids active in their own yard, especially ones that could cause injuries."