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Ouch! Pain Gains on a Generation : Behavior: Baby boomers drive themselves to the point of injury on playing fields. Some refuse to admit they're simply getting older.

October 07, 1990|DANIEL AKST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're under 45 and you're reading this with your arm in a sling, your injured leg elevated or with nasty scrapes on your knees and elbows, take heart. You may be hurt, but you're not alone.

American baby boomers are apparently beset by a plague of sports injuries. Statistics are scarce but aches and pains, unfortunately, are not.

The walking wounded are everywhere. Beverly Markwith, 35, a benefits administrator in Santa Monica, finally quit handball after her fifth knee operation. UC San Diego professor Robert Horwitz, 38, gave up gymnastics, then basketball, as his joints began to give out.

Even royal blood is no inoculation: Earlier this summer, Prince Charles, 41, broke an arm in a fall from his horse during a polo match.

All these injuries aren't just a function of more exercise. They're also a sign of age.

"The baby boomers are in their 40s and 50s and trying to do what they did in their 20s and 30s," said Marc Friedman, a Van Nuys orthopedist and sports medicine specialist. "Their bodies aren't happy. And they're getting injured."

Friedman, whose clients have included the New York Jets and New York Knicks, cites the case of a 52-year-old corporate vice president who broke his ankle shortly before he and his wife were to take a three-week cruise.

"What . . . is a 52-year-old executive doing sliding into home plate?" Friedman asked.

Psychologists say the executive is doing several things, including denying his own mortality. Balding and busy, many exercise buffs are driven to prove they're still young, to exorcise workplace demons and to accomplish something tangible after spending most of their time holding meetings and talking on the phone.

Dean Valentine, for example, plays intense weekend softball games with entertainment industry colleagues. Injuries are commonplace, said Valentine, 36, a vice president for Walt Disney Television. "It's a lot of guys not coming to terms with their age."

Valentine's troubles began when he fell off a horse in Arizona. Returning to his cherished softball after three months of recuperation, he promptly broke a wrist. After six weeks of recovery, he came back and broke an ankle while blocking home plate.

"We're a pretty seriously masochistic lot," Valentine said.

Almost everyone agrees on the merits of moderate exercise, but doctors and psychologists say they are startled by the relative lack of moderation in fit but aging weekend warriors.

"I'm a treadmill fanatic," said Rick Ferko, 39, a Woodland Hills lawyer and former Ohio State linebacker. He worked out vigorously as many as seven days a week, only to develop back problems.

The treadmill workout itself was a response to a ruptured Achilles tendon, earned while playing kamikaze basketball in 1984. His wife used the treadmill too--until she developed knee problems.

"We're all getting old and we overdo it," Ferko said, adding: "I'm still in the denial stage."

There are no reliable figures for the incidence of sports injuries, but evidence of an increase is more than anecdotal. Golf, a safer, statelier form of exertion than most, is booming; Sports Illustrated devoted much of a recent issue to the stampede to the links.

Another indicator may be the boom in sports medicine. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that its membership, which includes doctors, exercise physiologists and others, has grown from 2,900 in 1975 to 12,000 in 1989.

And The Physician and Sports Medicine, a McGraw-Hill journal aimed at the family practitioner that began publication in 1973, boasts a monthly circulation of 150,000.

Dr. Gary Green, a sports medicine specialist at UCLA Medical Center, said the typical sports injury has changed in recent years. In the past, people were sedentary after college or the military, exerted themselves on weekends and got hurt.

"Now we're seeing overuse-type injuries," Green said.

Tendinitis, bursitis, runner's knee and tennis elbow are common. And with acute injuries, some older people find they not only take longer to heal, but their conditions become chronic.

Ralph Requa, research director for the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, said the median age of patients and the proportion of chronic injuries are rising at his clinic, which gets more than 30,000 visits a year. "We're as busy as we've ever been," he said.

Most experts say the wave of injuries is partly an unavoidable side effect of increased activity.

"Anyone who participates in sports on a regular basis and pushes themselves borders on an injury all the time," said Douglas Jackson, a Long Beach orthopedist and sports medicine specialist. "We see more injuries now than five or 10 years ago."

One reason, he said, is that these days, recreational athletes don't give up. Jackson, 50, is an example. A runner, he was sidelined for six months by a back injury, but a year later ran the Los Angeles Marathon.

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