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Synopsis: Devastating injuries from pole vaulting may be prevented by attention to equipment, weight restrictions, and padding around the landing area.
Source: Boden BP, et al. Catastrophic injuries in pole-vaulters. Am J Sports Med. 2001;29(1):50-54.
This is a retrospective review of catastrophic injury in pole-vaulters collected by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research from 1982 to 1998. The purpose was to identify catastrophic pole-vaulting injuries and to propose prevention plans. High schools, colleges, universities, and news-clipping services were contacted yearly to identify any catastrophic events. When possible, the athlete, athlete’s family, coaches, or athletic directors were contacted to obtain details regarding the accident, facility, landing area, and weather conditions. Catastrophic injuries were not specifically defined but included 31 head injuries and 1 thoracic spine fracture resulting in paraplegia. The accidents resulted in death 50% of the time and in permanent disability 20% of the time. All injuries were in male athletes in whom 53% partially landed on the pad with the head impacting the ground, 16% completely missed the landing pad, and 25% landed in the vaulting box.
Comment by James R. Slauterbeck, MD
Catastrophic injuries occurring in sporting events, especially in amateur athletes, are devastating occurrences that need our attention as team physicians. Although post-injury medical management is rewarding in many cases, the treatment affects relatively few athletes whereas injury prevention may affect many more. Two years ago, a female pole-vaulter from a local college sustained a traumatic spondylolisthesis at an away meet and had fixation by the home-team physician. Since this occurrence, I watch the pole-vaulting events from a much different perspective and have often wondered how many athletes get seriously injured during the event.
Prior to this review, I was unaware of the rule changes making the sport safer. As a team physician for several track and field teams, I now want to ensure the safety of the pole-vaulting athletes. In 1987, the National Federation of State High School Association’s Track and Field Rules committee mandated increased padding around the vault box. In 1995, the pole-vaulter’s weight was mandated to be at or below the pole’s recommended weight to increase the control of the pole. Finally, all hard and unyielding surfaces surrounding the pad need to be cushioned. The value of headgear to protect the athlete is currently being debated. It is disturbing to read the reports identifying the number of athletes seriously injured from just missing or partially hitting the mat upon landing. I strongly support increasing the size of the mats and softening the ground around the mats. Maybe a sandpit surrounding the mat would decrease injury even more.
This is an important retrospective study noting catastrophic injury occurrences in pole-vaulters. We need to continue to find ways to increase the safety for the athlete. Better coaching, more pads, and softer areas outside of the mat certainly will help. If you currently provide care for track athletes, check the pit and surrounding areas and make sure the landing area is as safe as possible.