Most Dangerous Sports

Americans love competition, which makes it no wonder why it is so pervasive in sports. This competition is usually accompanied by a strong desire for maintaining good fitness habits. However, many sports aficionados experience one of the costs of the endeavor to pristine health, sports injuries.

No one likes getting hurt, in the near term it causes us to sit out the game, hold back on our exercise routine for recovery time, and may increase our medical costs. In the long term it may exacerbate arthritic conditions with aging or weaken a body part making it more prone to injury in the future. In the very extreme, it may cause catastrophic injury or death.

This article will hopefully shed some light onto details that can aid in understanding what sports are the most dangerous. What qualifies as the most dangerous sport is a matter of opinion, as it can be measured in a variety of ways.  The approach taken in this case was to generally look at sports most people play and compare them against each other in terms of number of injuries, body parts injuries, ages of those injured, and what types of injuries occurred using the Consumer Product and Safety Commission’s NEISS database .

Overall research paints only one perspective of what qualifies as the most dangerous sport. There are so many other qualitative factors that each individual should consider before determining what sport may be safest for them.  In particular, it is hard to consider the severity of injuries incurred in the research since everyone has different pain tolerances. For example, one could argue that basketball is dangerous since they had the most ankle injuries, however since most injuries would not qualify as a catastrophic injury, it may be an injury risk the sports enthusiast considers worth taking.

Comparing sports is by nature comparing apples to oranges since some sports by design have increased personal contact and can be affected by the level of protection required by the sport. The choice of the player to wear certain optional protection will affect incidence or severity of injury. For example ice hockey is a high contact sport and players wear considerable padding, but the amount of padding depends on the player. Hockey players can choose a face mask to prevent facial injuries, but it is not universally used, rather at the option of the player. That said there are 5 interesting takeaways:

Protect your head! – The most common injuries to occur for all sports in the sample were to the head (8554), mouth (1544), and face/cheek (5927), so protect your noodle. The national estimates translate into a large number of injuries that might be preventable. The national table (Table 1) is presented below:

Table 1

Body Part Estimate of National Injuries by Body Part All Sports % of total Injuries
Head 274454.6392 12.8427%
Ankle 258347.9957 12.0890%
Finger 198413.3141 9.2844%
Face/Cheek 190167.4827 8.8986%
Knee 175504.6617 8.2125%
Shoulder 144895.622 6.7802%
Wrist 126607.2021 5.9244%
Lower Trunk 98564.95811 4.6122%
Lower Arm 88265.69003 4.1303%
Lower Leg 88233.60508 4.1288%
Upper Trunk 86212.2534 4.0342%
Hand 77420.97784 3.6228%
Elbow 74886.267 3.5042%
Foot 66608.3506 3.1168%
Mouth 49539.15863 2.3181%
Neck 35774.71624 1.6740%
Upper Leg-Femur 24512.89974 1.1470%
Toe 17742.97586 0.8303%
Eye 15882.04891 0.7432%
Upper Arm- Humerus 13892.78218 0.6501%
All Parts of The Body 12930.23376 0.6051%
Genitals 8695.020719 0.4069%
Body Part Stated 5005.251779 0.2342%
Ear 4138.958202 0.1937%
Internal 320.849473 0.0150%
Face 32.0849473 0.0015%
2137050 100%

Head protection is becoming more common even in sports such as soccer (due to head on head or head to ground collision) because health officials and players alike recognize the value of injury prevention. Whether on a bike, the ice, or the gridiron, where your head and face protection, and where it properly. Let others worry about the fashion statement a helmet may make while you worry about the scoreboard.

Get a ‘Leg’ up on competitors by taking care of yours – Sample injuries to the Ankle (8052), knee (5470), foot (2076), lower leg (2750), and upper leg (764) comprise many sport participants’ injuries. While often these injuries may not be catastrophic as head injuries, they often lead to health problems as the individual ages. Lack of proper stretching and warm up are often contributors to many over extension injuries. If your team is relying on your legs to make that jump shot or punt kick, rely on proper stretching to help keep you at your best.

Playing by the numbers…- If one defines the ‘most dangerous’ sport by the sport most likely for a participant to become injured, the top 3 would be Basketball, Bicycling, and Football (Table 2). It makes sense since these activities are some of the more popular sports. This definition does not suit everyone since a sport that is more popular is more likely to have more aggregate injuries. If one defines ‘most dangerous’ as the sport with the greatest number of injuries per number of participants then football, skateboarding, and basketball could be considered the most dangerous  (Table 3).

Table 2:

Sport Rank Score Rank
Basketball 0.23829461 1
Bicycle 0.23484527 2
Football 0.22211205 3
Softball 0.09427898 4
Baseball 0.07233591 5
Skateboarding 0.06296347 6
Horseback Riding 0.02973311 7
Golf 0.01216269 8
Ice Hockey 0.01023913 9
Lacrosse 0.00935938 10
Tennis 0.00801652 11
Mountain Bikes 0.00332884 12
Street Hockey 0.00135593 13
Badminton 0.00097412 14

Table 3

Sport sport injury/sport participation rate Rank
Football 0.04859796 1
Skateboarding 0.01868844 2
Basketball 0.01858662 3
Baseball 0.01310488 4
Bicycle 0.01292005 5
Softball 0.01110944 6
Ice Hockey 0.00574515 7
Volleyball 0.00561302 8
Golf 0.00187256 9
Tennis 0.00145902 10
Mountain Bicycle 0.00132625 11

What to play if you don’t want to get hurt- Mountain biking, tennis, and golf where those that scored lowest in terms of injuries per participant. Keep in mind though, that the survey was of hospital visits, so it probably doesn’t include tennis players who go to their medical doctor for tennis elbow.

Injuries favor the young – The vast majority of injuries occur within the 10 to 15 age group, with the 15 to 20 age group a somewhat distant second. The peak injury age, that is the age at which the greatest number of injuries is recorded below for each sport (Table 4). While the peak age differs between sports, all are a relatively young age. If you’re a parent concerned about your youngster’s health in sports, this is especially important. Children are not only learning how to play these new sports, but are also learning to play in their growing bodies. Instilling proper warm up and stretching technique is even more imperative. If contact sports concern you, see if there are intramural sports are available, which can teach sports and healthy activity while avoiding some overly competitive nature that may lead to increased injury incidence. It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor as well as sports injury professionals on prevention methods and devices such as sports goggles, knee or elbow supports.

Table 4

Sport Peak Injury Age
Basketball 16
Football 14
Lacrosse 15
Softball 15
Baseball 12
Golf 7
Volleyball 15
Field Hockey 15
Badminton 16
Street Hockey 15
Bicycle 13
Mountain Bikes 11
Ice Hockey 15
horseback riding 13
Tennis 16

In short, what qualifies as the most dangerous sport is anyone’s guess because it depends on the person who’s guessing. Every individual must first ask themselves what their definition of what qualifies as ‘most dangerous’ and what risk they wish to take in pursuing healthy sports activities.  The important take away is that since every sport has different tendencies for injuries. If you know what sport you want to play, then the best way to protect yourself is to understand the most common injuries of your sport and use preventative injury techniques accordingly.  Lastly, have fun! (As safely as possible).

2 Responses to “Most Dangerous Sports”

  1. Joey says:

    Very informative. Having kids of My own, it’s easy to see how injuries can take a toll at any age. That’s why finding good, knowledgable doctors who can provide excellent therapy has really helped. Thanks APM!

  2. Chad says:

    Great insight. My daughter is a HS cheerleader (luckily injury-free so far) Wonder where cheerleading (if classified as a sport) would rank in this list?