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THE SAFETY ZONE | Spotlight | JERRY HICKS

Bowling Can Do a Number on Body

August 07, 2000|JERRY HICKS

The worst bowler I ever met was also the most dangerous. It was in high school; I had a crush on her and she crushed my toe with the ball.

Not on purpose. The ball flipped out of her hand on her backswing.

When a colleague the other day suggested a column on bowling safety, I almost scoffed. Who gets hurt bowling?

It reminded me, though, of that painful bowling experience of my adolescence.

And then I read the statistics: More than 20,000 people are treated in emergency rooms each year from injuries suffered at bowling alleys, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Injuries range from frequent bowlers suffering tissue damage to kids getting smashed by the heavy ball.

Here's a common sight at the local alley: The bowler is talking away with someone but has a hand down to catch the ball coming back on the automatic ball return. Paying no attention, eyes elsewhere, the bowler fails to see the ball pop up.

"Happens all the time," said Virginia Norton, a former Brunswick Corp. consultant and widely known as one of the area's premier bowling instructors. "I've seen smashed fingers, broken fingers, broken wrists, just from people not paying attention."

But smashed faces? Oh yes, she says: "Mostly kids. They put their face right into the return; they're so eager to see their ball come back."

Those with injuries counted by the Consumer Product Safety Commission include people who suffer heart attacks while on the lanes, says Sam Habhab, who runs tournaments at the Linbrook Bowling Center in Anaheim. But who's to say that's not directly related to the victim's bowling activity?

Habhab recently saw a young man hyperventilating on the lanes at another facility, possibly saved from a serious problem only because someone with medical knowledge was bowling nearby.

One good tip I heard from bowlers repeatedly: Wear comfortable clothing. And stay cool.

"You can work up a sweat bowling," Habhab said. "Don't bowl on a night when you aren't feeling well and might overheat."

What are the most common types of injuries at a bowling alley? Here are a few at the top of everybody's list:

Slips and falls.

You aren't supposed to cross the foul line when throwing your ball down the alley. But many do. The lane on the other side of the foul line is coated with a synthetic oil that helps the ball's flow. Get too much of that oil on the bottom of your shoe and you're asking for trouble.

Also, bowling alleys are notorious for spilled drinks on the floor. Avoid sticky shoes.

Improper shoes.

Most equipment stores sell shoes that have more sole traction on one foot than the other--leather on the sliding foot, rubber on the nonsliding foot--so you can push off when you swing the ball. But rental shoes tend to be the same on both shoes, and too often in poor condition. Most bowling centers recommend that you be highly selective in choosing shoes.

Another bugaboo that hadn't occurred to me: The National Safety Council warns of many cases of athlete's foot being passed by rental shoes.

Tennis elbow.

It comes, Norton said, from bending the elbows too much in the swing.

"Let the weight of the arm swing the ball," she said.

Her best advice is to take lessons from a pro to learn the proper swing. Don't just take up the game through trial and error.

Bad backs and torn tendons.

Bowling is touted as the game for everybody, from youngsters to the elderly to the disabled. But improper moves on the lanes can lead to injuries.

"Some people don't even know how to pick up a ball," Norton said. "It's like anything else; you bend at the knees, not at the waist. Do it wrong too long and you'll wind up with a bad back."

And everyone agrees: Always use two hands.

Dorothy Teeter, who operates an instructional Web site, recommends wrist guards. Tendon damage, Habhab warns, is one of the most common injuries of those who bowl regularly.

"A lot of it has to do with the weight of the ball," Habhab said. "Too many people get a ball that is just too heavy for them."

Which leads to the most common safety tip on the lanes:

Make sure you use a ball that fits you.

"Too often if you use a rental ball, it's too heavy or the holes are too far apart for your hands to be comfortable," Norton said. "If you're going to bowl much at all, you really do need to get your own ball."

Improper-fitting holes, she said, can lead to poor wrist action, which can lead to injury. But even more common, such holes leave bowlers with blisters on their fingers or thumbs.

The National Safety Council offers this tip for testing the ball: Hold the ball with your elbows extended in fixed position. If you can hold the ball for five seconds without feeling any tremble in your hands or wrists, then the ball is not too heavy for you.

While several people I've talked with were glad to see attention paid to bowling safety, there was another view too.

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