Injuries are a common issue throughout all sports, and at the collegiate and professional level, injury to a key player can make or break a season. Although it may surprise you, many studies show that basketball has the most injury occurrences of any sport for players of all ages. But why is that the case?
Basketball has the most injury occurrences because of its high popularity and because its complex movements and speed put tremendous strain on the body, especially the ankles and knees. While the number of total injuries is the highest in basketball, there are other sports that have a higher rate of injury per participant.
Of course, many of the reasons people get injured in basketball are exactly why it’s so much fun to play and watch. In this article, we will help you understand the main basketball injuries that can occur and why they occur with a frequency that puts basketball at the top of sports injury lists. Moreover, we will put this number in perspective to make you understand that, while it is true that it is the sport with the most injuries, the fact that it is such a popular sport has also a big influence on that.
Why Do Basketball Injuries Occur?
Basketball today really is a contact sport based on quick changes in direction—lateral moves and pivots, jumps, and speed. This combination puts tremendous force (and torque) on the body, which sometimes can result in injuries.
In addition to these quick changes in direction and the lateral moves, pivots, and jumps, another main reason for injuries in basketball is the ball itself. This is due to the nature of the game and the fact that the ball is passed around at high speed and strength. And what time of injury does the ball cause? Well, mostly jammed fingers, which is the most common injury when playing basketball. While usually not a very severe one, its prominence makes it worth it mentioning.
If you are reading this article because you want to start playing basketball or you want your children to start playing basketball, you might be having second thoughts about it with what has been discussed until now. So, let’s put things a bit into perspective in the next section.
How Frequent are Basketball Injuries?
At this point, you may be left wondering how safe basketball is and whether you or your kids should choose another sport. You might also be wondering if the same number of people play soccer as basketball, would basketball still have more injuries? Just how frequent are these injuries anyway?
One way to determine this is to look at the incidence of injury. Incidence as a measure of risk is usually seen in the context of epidemiological work. However, a simplified version can be applied here. We can take a population at risk (athletes) over a specified time (one or more seasons) and note the number of injuries during that time divided by the number of athletes.
Here’s a comparison of injury incidence for basketball versus other sports based on sports injury data collected for 2019 by the Insurance Information Institute. Overall, basketball has the greatest number of total injuries—403,908. Soccer, on the other hand, had 188,336. Football had 292,306 injuries and baseball and softball had 157,164 injuries combined. In 2018 the number of participants in outdoor and indoor soccer in the U.S. was approximately 16.64 million. For basketball in 2018, the number of participants was 24.23 million. For football, it was 5.16 million. For baseball and softball, it was 25.6 million.
To get the incidence of injury (a measure of risk), divide the number of injuries by the number of participants. The results look like this for these top contact sports in the United States:
- Basketball risk over 403,908 injuries / 24,000,000 participants = 1.68
- Soccer risk over 188,336 injuries / 17,000,000 = participants = 1.10
- Football risk for 292,306 injuries / 5,160,000 participants = 5.66
- Baseball and softball for 157,164 injuries / 25,600,000 = 0.61
While this is far from a statistically rigorous study, it appears as though there’s still a greater incidence of injuries in basketball compared to soccer, and baseball and softball. However, football appears to be a much riskier game than basketball when looked at from this lens.
Most Common Basketball Injuries
Now that we have looked at it with a bit more perspective and we have a better understanding of the risks, we will have a look at the most common injuries and why they occur. We will begin with the top two—ankle sprain and knee injury. Together, these account for the majority of serious injuries to basketball players.
As mentioned above, basketball is all about lateral and vertical movement—ankle sprains most often occur due to an unstable landing after a jump. An unstable landing can result from off-balance contact with the court surface, but it is more likely to stem from landing on another player’s foot. This also increases the risk of a turned ankle, with resulting torn ligaments and tendons.
However, there are several types of ankle injuries, from sprains to dislocation and fracture; all of these can occur during basketball play and have different causes. In fact, a British Journal of Sports Medicine study found some causes of ankle injury may involve a previous history of an ankle injury, improper footwear, and inadequate stretching.
Player motion places immense stress on joints, particularly the largest joint in the body—your knee. Whether from direct trauma or the stress of overuse, knees suffer most in basketball. As knees are bent for long lunges or overextended for high jumps, the back and forth on tendons and ligaments become overbearing.
For this reason, ligament tears are common in the knee, and the severity increases over time without treatment. This is especially true of the ACL or anterior cruciate ligament, which can be stressed and torn when players sprint and stop suddenly to pivot in a new direction. An ACL injury can mean surgery and a lengthy course of physical therapy.
Women basketball players are at a higher risk for ACL injury due to differences in knee joint structure (more looseness and range of motion.) ACL injuries in men are highest in football, followed by basketball.
Hip and Leg Injuries
Contact on the court, repetitive plant and turn motion, and over-extending muscles and ligaments can cause hip and leg injuries. The most common injuries include shin splints, contusions, pulled hamstrings, and groin muscles.
Running along the back of your thigh, hamstring muscles help with leg and knee movement. When you pull your hamstring, you know it—play comes to an immediate stop. If the severity of a hamstring pull is not properly diagnosed, the result is a weakened hamstring, which may mean weeks of recovery time.
Catching, passing, and dribbling are actions that rely on moving the ball at high speeds. Given the force involved, catching a basketball even slightly off-kilter or unexpectedly can result in the ball hitting the fingertip rather than the palm of the hand, jamming the finger joints together.
Jammed fingers are the most common injury in basketball. Beyond a jammed finger, such ball-impact-related injuries may extend to include dislocated fingers, wrist sprains, or fractures.
Given that basketball is definitely a contact sport, it doesn’t take long for collisions to occur as players attempt to pass, shoot, and block shots—at speed. When players collide, there’s a risk for head-to-head or head-to-floor impact, which can result in mild to severe concussions.
So, given the potential for a season- or career-ending injury like the ones listed above, how risky is basketball considering it has the most injury occurrences? To find out, it’s worth determining how frequent basketball players experience injuries.
It does appear that compared to other sports, basketball has the most number of injuries. This due to the nature of the game—lateral and vertical moves, with quick changes in direction increases the stress on a player’s body and the risk of injuring hips, knees, and ankles. But a big part of it is the fact that basketball is a very popular sport. When looked as a percentage of injuries per number of participants, football seems to be three times riskier than basketball is, with soccer being only a bit less risky.
However, the risk of injury is inherent in any competitive sport. Conditioning, good equipment, and court awareness can help reduce the injury risk in basketball. So, enjoy that pickup game next weekend, be aware of the risks, listen to your body, and go for it!