While fans and the media focus on football with the NFL and college football in full swing, another sport is on the horizon. Practices for the upcoming basketball season start soon. Later today I am speaking to a school basketball team here in Charleston, so I thought it would be a good time to discuss basketball injuries.

Recently an article published in the journal Sports Health looked at visits to United States emergency departments following basketball injuries. The data was obtained from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The authors studied injuries from basketball suffered by players aged 7 to 17 between 2000 and 2006. The injuries occurred in both organized basketball leagues and games as well as recreational basketball.

Tips to prevent youth basketball injuries

Data on youth basketball injuries

Surprisingly, there was a huge number of basketball players treated for injuries in hospital emergency departments in this span. The authors used this surveillance system to estimate that 325,465 injuries were evaluated and treated each year. Approximately 81% of these injuries occurred in players aged 12-17, compared to about 19% who were ages 7 to 11. Fortunately, over 98% of the patients were treated and released.

The five injuries diagnosed most frequently were, in order, ankle sprains, finger sprains, finger fractures, knee sprains, and facial lacerations. Girls had a higher rate of knee sprains and finger sprains, while boys had a higher rate of ankle sprains. To me, the increased risk of knee sprains in basketball among girls is not surprising given the much higher risk of ACL injury in female athletes in all sports.

This study is alarming in demonstrating the frequency of injuries from basketball. The sport has been shown to be the most common sport to lead to emergency department visits in males and the second most common sport to do so in female athletes. And with an estimated 1 in 13 Americans playing basketball at least once each year, it shouldn’t be that surprising that almost one-third of a million young basketball players are treated in emergency departments each year.

NBA basketball injuries

And while this study focuses on youth injuries, these injuries are not all that different than what has been seen among NBA players. In 2010, Mark C. Drakos et al. published a study in Sports Health that reviewed the injuries in the National Basketball Association over a 17-year period. They listed the most common injuries seen and reported to the NBA by the teams’ athletic trainers. Patellofemoral inflammation was the most likely cause of missed games and practices, while ankle sprains were the most common injury. Knee ligament injuries were fortunately uncommon.

So young basketball players have injuries similar to those of the pro players. Now this study of youth players only focuses on emergency visits, as many youth teams and leagues do not have athletic trainers to report injuries and collect data like the NBA. I think that patellofemoral pain, patellar tendinopathy, and similar aggravations of the knee’s extensor mechanism, which are a frequent cause of missed time among NBA players, is likely present in youth basketball as well but not a problem that would require a visit to the ER. Obviously ankle sprains appear to be an injury common among basketball players at all ages and levels.

Are there any observations that might suggest ways for young basketball players to decrease their risk of injury? Some basketball injuries are the nature of that sport, such as finger injuries. It is common (and hard to prevent) for the ball to hit players on the tips of the fingers or for the players to get their fingers caught while battling for rebounds with opponents, so those injuries are going to exist. Ankle sprains and knee ligament injuries are also often traumatic events, so completely eliminating them might be difficult, but there might be some possible measures to decrease them.

Girls playing basketball

So this is my quick list of ideas to try to keep young basketball players healthy and on the court.

Basketball injury tip #1: Work on conditioning and cardiovascular endurance well before the season starts.

Although somewhat anecdotal, it seems to me that many athletes suffer knee and ankle injuries late in basketball games after they have started to get tired. Perhaps their muscle control decreases with fatigue and makes them more likely to get hurt.

Basketball injury tip #2: Work on a lower extremity flexibility program consistently.

There is some data that suggests that Achilles flexibility, especially the lack of it, might be associated with patellofemoral tendinopathy. Also lower extremity tightness might be related to acute ankle sprains and other injuries, such as muscle strains. Daily stretching and stretching before and after practice and games should be part of the players’ routines.

Basketball injury tip #3: Female basketball teams and players should consider learning and practicing an ACL injury program.

While knee ligament injuries are low overall, among female athletes especially they are higher than we would like. And they are devastating injuries, most often requiring surgery and causing the player to miss the rest of the season. While a daily program of warm-up exercises to work on landing and turning and other aspects of neuromuscular control might not completely end the risk of tearing the ACL, even lowering the risk of this injury is worthwhile, in my opinion.

Basketball injury tip #4: Have players evaluated for persistent pain.

One of the common reasons I hear that players and their parents don’t want to see a sports medicine physician, or their primary doctor for that matter, is that they are afraid of being told they can’t play. But many of these injuries in basketball are easily treated with simple measures. Often ice, anti-inflammatory medications, a brace, or occasionally a day or two with modified or limited practice are all that a player needs to get back to play at 100%. And seeing a physician early might prevent the problem from growing to one that needs much more aggressive treatment later.