By Dr. Eric W. Edmonds
Back in 1891, basketball was originally played with a peach basket and a football, without any dribbling. It was a game that experienced extensive evolution, including everything from the ball shape and color to the number of players. In turn, the potential injury risk for the game of basketball has also changed over the past century.
Currently there are over 1.6 million injuries attributed to basketball per year in North America, including about 500,000 children. Most injuries are very minimal and require no medical attention and in fact, may not even get reported to parents. Some experts suggest that one in four high school players sustain an injury yearly, boys and girls.
Elementary school kids sustain a large percentage of arm and head injuries while playing basketball. This is likely secondary to developing coordination skills. These injuries are difficult to prevent, unless children are restricted from participation until developmentally appropriate.
Adolescents sustain a totally different set of injuries related to basketball. When it comes to the arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist, basketball is relatively safe. While injuries can and do occur especially at the hand and fingers, the mechanism of throwing and shooting the ball is much more in tune with human development than the overhead throwing seen in baseball, softball and water polo. Our shoulders were designed to utilize a “dart-throw” mechanism, and the pushing type throw seen in basketball is very similar. Therefore, it is relatively uncommon to see throwing injuries in basketball.
The legs are not so lucky when it comes to the game of basketball. Some NCAA data suggest that most of the injuries are contact injuries. The ankle is by far the most commonly injured joint, usually a sprain or ligament injury. Many coaches will actually create a rule that all team members must wear ankle braces in order to play. It does appear that scientific research would support these coaches in their attempts to prevent ankle injury. Taping and high-top shoes may also help decrease ankle sprains. But, it is important to understand that none of these methods are foolproof.
The knee is another area in the body that can be injured. Overuse injuries can occur, including shin splints, but a large percentage of knee injuries include ligament tears. In contrast to ankle bracing, the medical research has never been able to prove any benefit to prophylactic knee bracing in regards to ACL tears. However, there is some suggestion that an injury to the MCL may be prevented with a brace.
Treatment for all these injuries should start with prevention. As with all sports, cross-training for strength and stamina limits the risk of overuse injuries and can help improve the skill level of the player to reduce the risk of traumatic injury. Appropriate equipment should be utilized to prevent ankle injuries. If an injury does occur, then rest and possibly bracing or taping should be the first treatment. Medical treatment should be sought if symptoms persist with greater than two weeks of rest.
Dr. Eric W. Edmonds is a pediatric and adolescent orthopedic sports medicine specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and an assistant professor of orthopedics at UC San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org