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The Top Three Most Dangerous Sports for Female Athletes

Boyd W. Haynes III, MD

As a Fellowship-trained Sports Medicine physician, I am often asked what sports have the most risk for injury by adult individuals who are interested in sports and parents of children who want to participate in sports programs at school.  The youth really don’t seem to care all that much, they just want to be a part of the team!  When it comes to female athletics, the answers I give with regards to the most dangerous female sports may surprise you, but hopefully, they can educate and guide you whether you’re a parent or an athlete.

There seems to be some controversy over which sport takes the number one spot as being the most dangerous for female athletes – cheerleading or basketball.  Some may argue that cheerleading isn’t a sport, but I’m not going to get into that debate in this forum.  As an orthopaedic physician, I know today’s female college cheerleaders (and some high schoolers) must be in top physical condition to complete the complex and hazardous gymnastic tower routines, stunts and throws that are required.  

There are many injuries I see to female basketball players that involve the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and other tendon, ligamentous and muscular trauma. There has also been an uptick in the number of traumatic brain injuries to female basketball players over the past decade as play has become more aggressive.  However, the more serious or catastrophic injuries typically happen to cheerleaders, which may involve brain trauma, spinal injuries, paralysis, and fractures, due to falls and drops from pyramids or missed catches by team members.

The female ACL is frequently injured due to female anatomy and lack of strength.  My advice to females who want to play basketball and cut their risk of injury would be to start an ACL conditioning program to build strength and flexibility. If necessary, get help from a professional athletic trainer who can give expert advice and set up a specific regimen tailored for the athlete’s personal anatomy.

I would give female cheerleaders the same recommendation for training as well. I know I will have about as much success trying to dissuade a female from cheerleading as I would preventing the sun from rising.  I also can’t prevent them from the dangers of falling, except to say, “Be Careful!”

Coming in at number three for danger is horseback riding.  Who hasn’t read Misty of Chincoteague, or Black Beauty about the beautiful, majestic horse? Watching a well-trained horse and rider is a thing of wonder, in dressage, over jumps, or just in simple pleasure equitation. As any horsewoman knows, a horse can shy or spook at the silliest things. That gorgeous 1500 lbs. of solid muscle can stop on a dime or rear without warning, sending your daughter, wife or mother flying head over heels to land on the ground.

Injuries sustained while horseback riding typically include falling or being thrown from the height of the horse’s back to the ground (more if going over a fence), where the body part that hits the ground first takes the brunt of the impact.  If that is one’s head, one could have spinal injury and paralysis (think Christopher Reeves). Head injury accounts for 50% of all horseback riding injuries.  The pelvis, shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip and back are common injury sites, with dislocations, fractures, sprains, and strains being common. Injuries to the foot and ankle are common, during dismounting, getting one’s foot caught in the saddle stirrup and having one\’s foot stepped on by the horse.

My advice for horsewomen is to always wear a safety helmet while riding.  Yes, I know it’s nice to have your hair blowing in the breeze while out for a trail ride in the sunshine; however, we talked about the chance of a riding mishap involving the head earlier. It’s best to lessen your odds of a brain injury whenever possible. Stretch well before and after riding to lessen the chance of muscle strain.  Get other forms of exercise, besides riding, to utilize other muscle groups.  Yoga is great for horseback riders, who tend to become less flexible.

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