March 29, 2012

Eric Kennedy, assistant professor of biomedical engineering

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Eric Kennedy, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, discusses child injury prevention.

Q: Why can children withstand injuries that may be more serious in adults?

A: A young child has much more elastic tissue than a young adult or someone my age — so his or her body is sometimes able to absorb energy differently than that of an adult. This is why we may see them as "resilient" to injury.

Yet while children may in some cases be more resilient than adults to certain injuries, they also live and operate in a world designed for adults. Airbags are known to be dangerous for children. Even the innocuous seat belt is notorious for causing serious abdominal injuries. This is why it is imperative to keep children in booster seats so that the lap belt restrains the pelvis to reduce the risk of these systems — which are designed for adults — from causing injuries.

Q: It's been shown that girls have a greater risk for knee injuries in adolescence. Is there an injury-related gender difference for younger children?

A: Yes, studies indicate a large difference in injury rates between males and females, all the way from pediatric to adolescent through full skeletal maturity. In fact, the female athlete may be as much as four times more likely to suffer an ACL injury than a male counterpart. That being said, until very recently, most researchers have looked at gender differences in ACL injury primarily for young adults (high school-age and up) and have not looked at the biomechanics of injury for very young children.

Ongoing research on knee injuries, I hope, will help us to take stock of the factors that are somewhat within our control so that we can teach everyone, female or male, how to take care of her or his body to minimize the risk of injury. For instance, maybe weight-training can keep the leg muscle groups more balanced in strength, or different landing or turning techniques can use muscle groups in ways that can help prevent injury.

Q: How have precautions such as helmets, knee pads, etc. impacted the number of childhood injuries over the past few decades?

A: I think in many areas, we've seen a dramatic improvement in the safety equipment of today compared to not that long ago. That being said, we've also seen an increase in the number of injuries — particularly head injuries — that are treated by physicians and medical professionals. Is there a sudden epidemic of head injuries to children? I don't think so. I think we have not only learned how to build better equipment, but we've learned much more about the importance of medical treatment — and gotten the word out to parents.

It is also interesting to note that there is often not a perfect solution to injury prevention. We are constantly trying to balance systems to work in a broad range of scenarios.

Q: How do childhood injuries affect the biomechanical health of adults?

A: I've talked some about the resilience of a child to injury, but there is a flip side to this. When a child is injured, there can be some lifelong or long-lasting effects from serious injury. For example, a serious leg fracture in a very young person may lead to differences between the limbs at adulthood. These subtle differences can alter gait, affect muscle and bone tissue, and lead to other life-long problems — from a limp to arthritis pain, etc. It's why a physician may be extra cautious when treating a child for an injury.

Q: What resources are available for parents who want to learn more?

Parents interested in learning more about common childhood injuries and ways to minimize the risk are invited to join my Biomechanics and Child Injury Prevention class for an informal poster and demonstration session on Tuesday, May 8, from 8:30-10:30 a.m. in the Elaine Langone Center Room 241. We'll discuss youth head injuries (concussions, bicycling protection, sports protection), knee injuries to children, healthy sports play and competition, school bus transportation, playground injuries and child booster seat use. All are welcome. Please contact me with questions.

Interviewed by Heather Johns

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