All sport, and indeed all physical activity, carries a risk of injury, though of course that risk varies. The amount of time spent playing sport naturally raises the risk of some injuries, though those who are serious about their sport will also understand how to mitigate some of that risk.
Those of us who don’t make a living from a sport and are taking part for fitness or recreation only should factor in the likelihood of injury taking place and consider the risk weighed against the potential impact when deciding what sport to choose. There are several factors to take into consideration, and you might be surprised that some of the activities widely considered to be more dangerous are not are risky as perceived ‘safer’ options.
Measuring Risk of Injury
There are several ways of measuring risk, and the most obvious is to start with current rates. For accuracy, this is measured over a 1000 people taking part in an activity and seeing how many of that group would sustain an injury.
Not all injuries are the same: there are ‘chronic’ injuries, caused by overuse or repetition, or there are more acute injuries (trauma), caused by accident or impact.
Incidence looks at how many injuries are sustained by that group over a period of time, and you should factor in how long you intend to be a participant; running over many years might have a higher incidence of chronic injury than the rate of impact injury.
Finally, you might consider prevalence, which looks at how many people at any time are unable to take part in a particular sport because of injury sustained.
Injury Rates in Popular Sports
Building an accurate picture is difficult because not all injuries are reported in the same way, if indeed they are reported at all, and statistics are often easy to interpret in several ways. Distance running has now been researched at length, with studies ongoing. It is amongst the easiest of sports for anyone to access, so a lot of data is available.
Similar studies of triathlon, however, have found injury rates to be around two times as high for those running alone rather than those in the three events. That could mean that running is more risky than cycling and swimming, though it could as easily show that pursuing a single sport increases the likelihood of a chronic injury over time.
Endurance vs. Strength
Distance running, and indeed the triathlon mentioned above, would be considered endurance events, and participants are likely to sustain different injuries from trying strength events such as weightlifting or bodybuilding.
Training for strength sports does seem to carry a lower risk than for those in endurance sports, and that is the same for both acute and chronic injuries, although the type of injury sustained is often very different. For strength sports, the risk areas tend to be the shoulders and lower back, whereas for endurance athletes the risk is higher for limbs - specifically joints.
There has not been much comparison of several strength sports concurrently that would suggest if one is less risky than another.
One might assume that a contact sport such as rugby would have a higher incidence of trauma injury than a non-contact game, though the difference might be in trauma vs. chronic; no sport is entirely risk-free. And sports like ski-jumping or motocross will see more broken bones than bowls or darts!
Causes of Injury
A large number of sport-related injuries are unavoidable. They are accidents that no one could have predicted. Other injuries are completely preventable, so it is up to each individual to minimise the risk and warm up properly before a game or other exercise. Make sure your technique is correct and that you do not push yourself too hard - and wear the correct equipment. That goes beyond wearing a gumshield to protect teeth and covers wearing sport-appropriate footwear, for example, that is designed to support your foot moving in a certain way; netball trainers are designed to cope with the quick change in pace required by the game, whereas a running shoe is more supportive of the arch of the foot against the repeated impact.
Usually, an injury makes itself very apparent to you very quickly, either through a cut, bruising, swelling, or restricted movement, though you might not notice it until some hours later. If you do notice an injury, stop the activity straight away to avoid further damage or pain.
A minor injury is usually treatable yourself, though you might prefer to seek professional advice if the injury does not improve within a couple of days. Of course, if you are worried sooner, do call in at a walk-in centre or see your GP to check your self-diagnosis and make sure that it is nothing more sinister.
Depending on the nature of the injury, you can probably treat it yourself with rest. Reduce swelling with an ice pack, and rest for up to 72 hours. A painkiller like paracetamol or ibuprofen with its anti-inflammatory properties can be useful, though do be prepared to visit your GP if symptoms do not improve in a few days, as he or she will be able to give a full diagnosis and refer you for more specialist help if necessary.
A very serious trauma - a broken bone or a deep cut - will mean that you need to seek medical help immediately.
So before you write off all sport again for having too high a risk of injury, pick a sport that fits your lifestyle. A non-contact sport has a lower risk of a trauma. In a low-risk endurance sport, where a repetitive strain injury might occur, you might not realise you have an injury until months later.