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By Jeff Sheler | The Virginian-Pilot
Commercial trampoline parks are springing up all over the country - including one in Greenbrier - offering what their operators describe as an "extreme-sport" experience in a safe, controlled setting.
Pediatricians are no fans. They call trampolines downright dangerous and urge parents to keep their children off them.
That advice came too late for Kathryn Keck, whose 4-year-old son, Graham, broke his leg last month at Cloud9 Trampoline Park, one of about 70 reported injuries at the indoor facility since it opened in November near the Conference Center.
"If I could turn back the clock, I would never have taken him in there," said Keck, of Virginia Beach.
The people who run Cloud9 say that, while there is a risk of injury in any sport, the dangers are minimized at their business by the equipment, rules and supervision they provide.
"In the grand scheme of things, it's actually quite minute," Gavin Grissom, Cloud9's manager, said of the risk.
"Almost 77,000 people have come through the door since we opened," Grissom said. "That makes the injury rate right around .09 percent. It's safer than bowling."
The percentages are similar. A 2006 study by American Sports Data showed 50,000 bowling injuries that year among 53 million participants, for a rate of 0.094 percent.
Of the 70 Cloud9 injuries through the middle of March, Grissom said, most were minor sprains and strains, with a few broken bones.
The emergency room at Chesapeake General Hospital, the closest to Cloud9, treated about 380 trampoline injuries last year.
Angela Gary, director of emergency services, said it is not known how many of those occurred at Cloud9 or on home trampolines.
The Fire Department has sent ambulances to the trampoline park 11 times in the past five months, said Capt. Scott Saunders, a department spokesman. In each case, people were taken to the hospital.
During the same period, emergency medical crews made two runs to bowling centers and seven to community centers that offer basketball, weightlifting and other sports, Saunders said.
Grissom said Cloud9 takes care to warn customers - most pay an entrance fee of $12 an hour - of the dangers and to instruct them on safety rules. All visitors, even spectators, are required to sign liability waivers.
"Participation in trampoline activities is an inherently dangerous recreational activity and involves a level of risk that each participant must evaluate on their own," reads a statement on the park's website.
"Catastrophic injury, paralysis or even death may result from failing to follow the rules and ... sometimes even if all rules are followed."
Medical professionals have long been wary of the recreational use of trampolines in any setting.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 2012 report updating an earlier study, urged pediatricians to "actively discourage recreational trampoline use."
It cited statistics compiled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission showing 97,908 injuries nationwide in 2009, the last year of available data. Of those, 3,100 required hospitalization.
Dr. David Smith, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, said the most common injuries are "simple sprains and strains" and other musculoskeletal injuries.
"The things we most worry about are catastrophic injuries: bad head or neck injuries, spinal cord injuries," Smith said. "Fortunately, those are not super-common."
Smith said he recently treated a young patient with torn knee cartilage and a handful of others with concussions suffered in trampoline accidents. His hospital does not keep records of where the injuries occurred, he said.
The Academy of Pediatrics report noted that three-quarters of all injuries occurred when more than one person was using a trampoline at the same time. It recommended that trampoline use "be restricted to a single jumper on the mat at any given time."
At Cloud9, there is no rule against multiple jumpers, but customers are urged to use caution. A sign posted on the wall and on Cloud9's website warns that "use by more than one person at the same time can result in serious injuries."
Yet during peak times, dozens of people crowd into a caged dodgeball court to fling vinyl, foam-filled balls at one another while bouncing vigorously to avoid being hit.
Jumpers recently performed acrobatic slam dunks in a basketball court with a trampoline "floor." Two or more jumpers were frequently seen sharing trampolines on the main floor.
One practice prohibited in Cloud9 rules is "double bouncing": a maneuver in which one person times a bounce so that another person bouncing on the same trampoline will go higher into the air.
"It's probably something everybody has done on their backyard trampoline, but it's very unsafe and causes injuries," said Tyler Springthorpe, an assistant manager. "It's one of our strictest rules."
The Academy of Pediatrics also discouraged flips and somersaults, which it described as "the most common causes of devastating cervical spine injuries."
There is no rule against those at Cloud9.
"People are definitely allowed to come in here and do flips," Springthorpe said. "But we ask everybody to just use your best judgment. Don't put yourself past what you can do."
Keck said she thinks Cloud9 could do more to make people aware of the dangers and to help out when injuries occur.
"It was our first time at the park," she recalled of her visit there with Graham and four other children.
They checked in, and she signed the waiver. Her son went ahead of her onto the trampolines.
When she caught up with him, she landed next to him on a trampoline, and it bounced up and knocked him over.
"I knew immediately something was very wrong," Keck said. "He's not a crier, but he was crying really hard. I told the attendant who was standing nearby, 'I'm pretty sure he broke his leg.' And the guy said nothing."
She picked up her son and carried him to the car.
"As I was going out the door, another attendant offered me an ice pack. That was the extent of it."
A pediatric orthopedist at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center confirmed the break and placed the leg in a cast.
"When I told her where it had happened, she said this was the fourth or fifth injury she had seen from there in the past week," Keck said.
"I can't tell you how many people I've talked to who have said, 'Oh, my gosh! I know someone else who was hurt there!' "
She soon came to know two other mothers of injured children.
Erin Sylvera of Virginia Beach said she wasn't at the park in February when her 12-year-old son, Kevin, who was there for a birthday party, fell off a slack line into a foam pit and broke his wrist.
"They said he must have put his wrist out to catch his fall, and the whole weight of his body was put on his wrist," Sylvera said.
"It was, like, five minutes into the party. He didn't even make it onto a trampoline."
An ambulance took him to Children's Hospital, where he underwent surgery for a compound fracture.
"He'll be in a cast until almost summer," Sylvera said.
Brittany Gloshen, also of Virginia Beach, went to the park with her 2-year-old daughter, Rylie, and some relatives just before Christmas.
Rylie was bouncing on a trampoline, Gloshen said, "and she hit the wrong spot and landed on the blue pad that covers the springs, and she broke her left leg."
She was taken to CHKD and was put into a cast for six weeks.
The Academy of Pediatrics report said children under 5 are most vulnerable to broken bones on trampolines and should be kept off them.
While there are no age limits at Cloud9, Grissom said, all children under 6 must stay with an adult at all times. The park holds a one-hour KidJump every morning just for children 6 and under.
Rachel Rise had glowing praise for the park and staff at the end of one recent children's hour.
"He had a blast!" she said of her 3-year-old son, Finley, who was there for the first time. "The toddler hour is perfect for him. We'll definitely be back."
Melissa Mascotti and her sons, ages 2 and 4, had been there once before.
"They like it, and the staff makes sure they understand the rules," she said. "I've never seen anyone get hurt, knock on wood."
Keck said she understands the appeal of trampoline jumping.
"There's no denying it's great fun," she said. "But it's only great until someone gets injured.
"We're used to being warned about the dangers of all kinds of things. But in this case, the warnings are for a really good reason."
Jeff Sheler, 757-222-5207,firstname.lastname@example.org