- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sprains, fractures and in rare cases even brain injuries can be the result of playing video games such as Wii Fit and Wii Sports because, doctors say, users don’t take them as seriously as if they were engaging in “real” sports.

“They’re in the ‘game’ category. They seem benign,” said Sunil Madan, associate medical director of the emergency department at Washington Hospital Center. “People just think, ‘It’s a video game, it’s not gong to hurt me.’ ”

But it can — sometimes severely.

One patient Dr. Madan treated recently, for example, suffered bleeding in her brain when she fell while using Wii Fit, in which players use a balance board to do yoga, strength training, aerobics and balance games. She recovered well, but had quite a scare, Dr. Madan said.

More common injuries are sprains. They occur because Wii Sports — which offers virtual versions of tennis, bowling, baseball, golf and boxing — and other video games don’t provide the same type of resistance players get from “real” sports.

The lack of resistance easily can lead to overextension of joints, said Dr. George Branche, an orthopedic surgeon at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital and the Anderson Orthopaedic Clinic in Arlington. In other words, in “real” tennis, for example, the impact of the ball hitting the racket creates enough resistance to prevent the elbow joint from being overextended.

So, Dr. Branche advised, in the case of the tennis game, it’s important to be cognizant of the possibility of overextension and guard against it.

“These games are a great idea. I’m in favor of anything that encourages people to be active,” Dr. Branche said. “But you have to regard them as sports and be serious about things like warm-up, cool-down and expectations.”

In other words, if you’re not an athlete, spending five hours playing virtual tennis may be a tad too much.

Doctors hope that if avid video-game players start viewing the games as sports, they will take the same precautions they would before starting any vigorous “real-life” exercise routine, such as getting a physical evaluation from a doctor to make sure their heart and lungs are up to the challenge.

And why not seek guidance setting goals and expectations from a personal trainer or coach?

“The video game doesn’t give you that immediate feedback that a trainer would give you, like ‘This is the correct way to lift, straighten your back, etc.,’ ” Dr. Madan explained. “But that shouldn’t stop you from consulting a trainer.”

Accompanied with the right kind of know-how, Wii Sports and other games have been shown to be effective tools in physical rehabilitation and senior fitness programs, improving everything from strength to balance in those populations.

Dr. Branche hopes the games — more than 60 million copies of Wii Sports and Wii Fit have been sold worldwide — can do some good in the general population, too, particularly in helping fight the obesity epidemic. According to some estimates, about 70 percent of Americans will be overweight or obese by 2012.

Before getting started, he suggests taking a few injury-preventing steps.

“Make sure your blood pressure and cardio risk have been assessed,” he said. “And make sure you set the game for the right amount of intensity.”

Because the game may be virtual, but the pain will be real.

• Gabriella Boston can be reached at gboston@washingtontimes.com.

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