Updated June 2021
Millions of people participate in gymnastics every year in the United States at a variety of skill levels. Participation in gymnastics from the recreational class level to the competitive team can provide both physical and mental benefits.
Erica Coffey, PT, MS, SCS, program director of the UPMC Centers for Rehab Services Sports Physical Therapy Residency Program and former collegiate gymnast, weighs in on the great benefits and risks of gymnastics.
Benefits of Gymnastics
Gymnastics builds physical strength, balance, flexibility, and total body coordination – as well as teaching life skills such as goal setting and the tangible benefits of working hard to successfully complete a new skill for the first time. The physical benefits of gymnastics participation can also improve one’s ability to perform in other sports. But gymnastics, like all sports, is not without risk. Most injuries occur as a result of overuse due to repetitive practice to master specific skills.
“The most common overuse injuries in gymnastics are muscle strains and tendonitis. Due to the high-flying nature of some tumbling and vaulting type skills, traumatic injuries can occur as well. Gymnastics skills that require an individual to turn upside down such as back handsprings, back tucks, and other “flipping” skills should never be performed without supervision,” Erica says.
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Upper Body Injuries in Gymnastics
Gymnastics requires exceptional strength, and as a result can place excess stress on joints, especially in the upper body. Events like the vault, pommel horse, rings, and high bar for men – as well as vault and uneven bars for women – are the most likely to cause injury to the shoulders, wrists, and elbows. Injuries might include:
- Ligament sprains of the shoulder, elbow, or wrist.
- Growth plate injuries in young athletes.
- Joint dislocations of the shoulder or elbow, or wrist fractures.
- Muscle strains or tendonitis to the shoulder or elbow muscles.
Common Lower Body Injuries in Gymnastics
Hard landings and the repetitive stress of jumping and landing, especially from events such as vaulting and tumbling, can lead to lower body injuries in gymnasts.
Injuries can range from minor to severe and may include ankle and foot sprains, patellar tendonitis, or anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury – any of which can require surgery, rehabilitation, and significant time away from sport. Repeated injuries of this kind can be serious and should be addressed by a physician specializing in orthopaedics.
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Back Injuries Common Among Gymnasts
“Gymnastics can be extremely enjoyable for athletes of all ages, as it promotes skill building, helps with overcoming challenges, and emphasizes perfection of movement,” Erica says.
Many gymnastics skills such as back walkovers, back handsprings, and other tumbling and vaulting type skills require repetitive back “arching” or hyperextension. Performing the high repetitions sometimes required to perfect these skills can result in overuse injuries to the back. The most common back injuries in gymnasts include:
- Muscle strains.
- Sprained ligaments.
- Stress fractures.
- Disc disorders.
Despite the risk of these injuries, long-term lower back pain in gymnasts is not common.
Safety in Gymnastics: Injury Prevention
Every year, many young people perform gymnastics without injury. Here are a few tips to help:
- Get expert coaching. Your coach should be well-versed in gymnastics safety practices and provide appropriate instructions for progressing skills and proper supervision.
- Avoid practicing high-level skills on your own without proper matting and/or supervision.
- Listen to your body. Your body sends pain signals to indicate something is wrong. Rather than try to push through, give your body time to rest and recuperate.
- Warm up, cool down, and stretch properly.
- Ensure that all equipment is functional, maintained, and used as intended.
- Be aware that people trained in first aid should be available at all gymnastics events and practices.
Care for Gymnasts at UPMC Sports Medicine
“If you experience a gymnastics injury, consider seeking care from a sports medicine professional to help you prevent more serious injury and get back to the gym safely,” Erica says.
Erica Coffey, PT, MS, SCS, is a senior physical therapist who has devoted much of her career to performing arts related injuries and rehabilitation. She received her bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Massachusetts, where she was a member of the women’s gymnastics team. She then returned home to Pittsburgh to complete her master’s degree in physical therapy at the University of Pittsburgh.
Erica has been a physical therapist since 1998 and is a board-certified specialist in sports medicine physical therapy through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. She treats gymnasts, dancers, and everyday active people with a focus on knee, foot, and ankle injuries at the UPMC Freddie Fu Sports Medicine Center.
To learn more or to schedule an appointment, please call 1-855-937-7678 or visit our website.
About Sports Medicine
Sports and physical activity bring with them a potential for injury. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury – or improve athletic performance – UPMC Sports Medicine and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program can help. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our experts partner with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Pitt Panthers, and about 100 other high school, college, and regional teams and events throughout Pennsylvania – working daily to build better athletes.