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.
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.
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.
“I say you’re barking up the wrong tree,” said Berdalee Corderman, publisher of Pacific Bowler, a major Southern California bowling publication based in Garden Grove. “Bowling is the safest sport you’ll ever find.”
The way Corderman sees it, the only bowlers who injure themselves are “either idiots or fools.”
Mary Grijalva, a longtime instructor at Brunswick Orange Bowl in Orange, places a slightly gentler spin on it:
“Neglectful,” she calls such bowlers. “You’ll almost never get injured at a bowling alley if you just pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Grijalva has reason to be excited about bowling these days. Her 23-year-old daughter, Tennelle, recently won the Professional Women’s Bowling Assn.'s U.S. Open. But even her daughter, she said, has suffered back injuries bowling.
Here’s the champ’s mother’s advice to ensure lane safety:
“Just do your stretchies. A few warmups to keep limber will go a long way toward helping you avoid injuries.”
The National Safety Council has much the same idea. It recommends a series of torso and arm exercises to help reduce back, arm and wrist sprains. You can see them in more detail on the Internet at www.nsc.org.
Bowling is good exercise for seniors trying to stay fit. But Norton, who teaches seniors, sees them making many mistakes that lead to injury.
Some seem to be afraid of sliding, so they put baby powder on their shoes. That’s the worst thing in the world, Norton says, because it leads to poor traction. She suggests buying powder sold at bowling centers.
In a recent tour of area bowling alleys, one thing stood out. Everybody was having fun, even those whose balls spent much of the time in the gutters.
“It’s a terrific sport for the whole family,” Norton said. “As for injuries, just use a little common sense and you’ll be fine.
Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
SAFETY IN THE LANES
Bowling might look like the safest sport you can find, but injuries from the sport account for more than 20,000 hospital emergency-room visits annually. And thousands of other bowlers suffer nagging injuries, such as torn tendons, back spasms, and smashed fingers. Here are a few trouble zones at the alley:
The foul line. You’re not supposed to cross the line with your feet, but many do. Problem is, the lane on the other side of the line is slick with synthetic oil. Many get the oil on their feet and then slip and fall later on.
Ball return. Some don’t pay attention when the ball comes back and put a hand in the return too quickly, smashing fingers between balls.
The ball. A ball too heavy or too light can lead to muscle strains you didn’t expect.
The shoes. Rental shoes don’t have the same grip as more expensive shoes, causing falls. Also, athlete’s foot can be transferred through rentals.
Wrist guards. They can reduce the chances of suffering strained tendons.
Clothing. Many emergency-room treatments are for those who overheated at the bowling alley. Wear comfortable clothing to help keep you cool.
TIPS FOR PREVENTING INJURY
* Test the ball. Hold a rental ball out in front of you with elbows locked, for five seconds. If you feel wobbly after that long, the ball is too heavy for you.
* Strengthen wrist tendons by squeezing a rubber ball 20 times daily. Or open and close hands rapidly 40 times for the same effect.
* To help tone your arms, practice holding the ball in front of you with elbows locked. Stop to rest, repeat numerous times.
* Reduce torso strain, practice standing with hands on hips, feet wide apart, then twist your upper body slowly, first to the right and then left. Do 10 sets right before bowling.
NUMBERS THAT MIGHT HELP YOU
* The National Safety Council on the Internet at www.nsc.org
* The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on the Internet at www.cps.gov.
* The National Bowling Assn. Phone 212-689-8308
* Worldwide Bowling League Phone 317-784-9989
Sources: National Safety Council, U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission