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Can hanging on monkey bars be dangerous for kids?

shoulder injuries

A co-worker recently told me that her 18-month-old daughter loves to play on the monkey bars. She mostly just hangs there, no swinging. 

Her question to me was "Do I need to be worried about her hurting herself? I thought that kids’ shoulders can pop out easily, which is why you really shouldn’t swing them by their arms. But, at her age, would hanging be detrimental?"

This is a great question!

The injury young children can sustain from swinging by their arms is called “nursemaid elbow.” It isn’t the shoulder but instead the elbow that can become dislocated on accident. The head of the radial bone (one of two bones in the forearm) can be forced out of place because ligaments can be weaker in young children.

Nursemaid elbow typically happens to children between 1 and 4 years of age. One of the most common ways this can happen is when a child is being swung by the arms, typically by an adult. There may or may not be a “pop” with instant pain. However, parents will notice that their child will hold the arm bent at the elbow, usually against their chest, and they may be supporting the affected arm with their other one.

While the condition is somewhat painful, a child’s distress is usually due to the anxiety of possible worsening pain and will be reluctant to let others examine the arm. A thorough exam in the doctor’s office or emergency room will typically be sufficient for a diagnosis. The arm can then be “reduced,” meaning the bone encouraged to go back into the right alignment, with a few simple maneuvers. Depending on your child’s age and level of distress they may be offered pain medicine prior to the procedure. Most of the time, the doctor can feel the bone “pop” back into place and the pain should immediately lessen.

If your child is still not using their arm or acts like they are in significant pain after returning home, they should return to the doctor’s office for X-rays to rule out a fracture. It's very rare for children with a history of nursemaid elbow to have any complications or impact on their arm function later in life. 

As for a child hanging on the monkey bars, I don't believe is has a significant risk of harm for the child. It's often the jerking motion that triggers nursemaid elbow. Gently allowing a child to let their weight hang from the monkey bars for short periods of time is unlikely to harm but rather strengthen their ligaments and muscles.

By the way, I love hearing about children playing outside and being active with their parents!

About Amy Seery MD

Amy Seery, MD, is a pediatrician with Via Christi Clinic and a faculty member of the Via Christi Family Medicine Residency program.