5 Most Dangerous Recreational Sports (with the most ER visits)

bicycle crash
That's gotta hurt. But you'll have to keep reading to see where bicycling fits on our list.
Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

On the whole, Americans are a fun-loving bunch. A more contemporary work-hard, play-hard attitude has replaced the old Protestant work ethic. And if the numbers coming in from emergency rooms are any indication, Americans are indeed playing hard -- very hard.

Roughly 14.7 million visits were made to the ER in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available [source: CSPC]. And 4.1 million of those visits fell under the sports and recreation category [source: NEISS].


So what are the five most dangerous recreational sports? Any sport can cause injuries, and we've all seen them happen -- to ourselves, our favorite pros and unlucky YouTube stars -- but we wanted to base this countdown on hard data, not hearsay. This article uses information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, created by the Consumer Safety Product Commission to collect information from ERs across the country.

The commission originally created the NEISS to track injuries related to consumer products, but because of its usefulness, the system expanded to cover all injuries beginning in the year 2000 [source: CSPC].

"The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System is a statistical sample of approximately 100 hospital emergency departments in the U.S. open to the general public," said Thomas Schroeder, director of the CSPC's Division of Hazard and Injury Data Systems. "Data are collected from participating hospitals on a daily basis for consumer product-related injuries treated in the emergency department" [source: Schroeder].

And before you start thinking "snow skiing," remember, this list is based on the number of injuries reported at ERs. While skiing is indeed a dangerous sport (103,274 ER visits in 2010), not as many people participate in it as compared to more common sports like football.

"Every sport involves some risk, and there's no way around that," says L. Syd Johnson, a professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Michigan Technological University. "But sports are also a fun and interesting way to stay healthy and fit" [source: Johnson].

Before you get out those sweatpants and rush to the park, let's find out what made the list of the five most dangerous rec sports. We'll count down from No. 5: an off-road activity that could leave your head spinning.

5: ATVs

First up on the list is less a sport and more of a recreational activity. But no matter what you call it, ATV riding is a risky pastime, sending nearly a quarter of a million fans of these all-terrain vehicles -- 230,666 to be exact -- to the hospital in 2010 [Source: NEISS].

Of recreational activities, all-terrain vehicles are a recent addition, growing in popularity since hitting the market in the 1970s.


In 2010, the Government Accountability Office prepared a report for Congress on ATVs. It found that the number in use went from about 3.6 million in 1999 to 10.2 million in 2008, an increase of about 183 percent [source: GAO].

But along with the popularity came a troubling issue: children riding adult-sized ATVs. The GAO found that in a majority of the cases, injuries to youths resulted from riding the larger vehicles. In an undercover operation it conducted in four states, the office found that seven out of 10 dealers were willing to sell adult-sized ATVs for use by children [source: GAO].

Orthopedic surgeon Jeffrey R. Sawyer has straightforward advice to avoid ATV mishaps. "The most important ways to prevent injury are adult supervision, helmets, protective clothing and age-appropriate vehicles," he said [source: AAOS].

4: Baseball and Softball

"Play ball!" That is, at your own risk. No. 4 on our list is America's favorite pastime, baseball. Included in the data -- and the 282,008 ER visits -- is its cousin, the fine sport of softball.

Plastic surgeons take note: The most common body part to be injured is the face. Though collisions are common when rounding the bases, most of those facial injuries, 68 percent, resulted from direct contact with the ball [source: Bak]. This gives a new meaning to "heads up."


But there's consolation in this: Only 5,468 of those injured were admitted to the hospital for a longer stay [source: NEISS]. That's the fewest out of the five most dangerous recreactional sports (in contrast, No. 5 on this list, ATVs, led to 26,078 hospital stays or deaths on arrival).

And to prove that boys play rough, about two-thirds of baseball/softball injuries were from male respondents [source: NEISS].

3: Football

Ready, set, hut!

When getting your game face on, remember your helmet, too. Football, one of the most popular sports in the U.S., is the third-most dangerous, with participants making 489,676 trips to the emergency room in 2010 [source: NEISS].


Not that a helmet is a sure-fire way to avoid a trip to the hospital. According to Johnson, the Michigan Tech professor, football helmets and pads change the nature of the game.

"It's important for athletes of all ages to understand that safety equipment like helmets and pads are a double-edged sword," Johnson said. "They provide protection, but they also make it possible for players to hit each other a lot harder" [source: Johnson].

And even with proper equipment, many players sustain concussions.

"A helmet is great protection against a fatal skull fracture, but it can't prevent a concussion, because a concussion happens when your brain bounces around inside your skull," Johnson said. "If you get hit hard enough, whether it's in the body or the head, your brain is going to get bumped around."

For our next sport, you're less likely to get a concussion, but it won't stop you from spraining an ankle as you drive up the court.

2: Basketball

Whether hitting the driveway for a little roundball with your dad or joining an indoor rec league, consider that basketball is the second-most dangerous recreational sport in the U.S. -- tallying 528,584 emergency room visits in 2010.

And for the most part, it's teenagers filling the emergency rooms. Basketball is the most popular team sport for both boys and girls in the U.S. Over the past 20 years, participation is up more than 10 percent for boys and nearly 20 percent for girls [source: McKenzie].


Of the half a million trips to the ER, 49 percent were injuries sustained by those in the 15-to-24 age range, higher than any other sport on this list [source: NEISS].

In a 10-year study of the NEISS data, the most common reason for basketball players showing up at the ER? Sprains or strains to the lower extremities, like twisting an ankle, which accounted for 30 percent of the visits [source: McKenzie].

If there's a silver lining, it's this: Overall, injuries in the sport have decreased during the past 15 years. But that's no reason to throw caution to the wind.

So what made the top of the list? Grab a helmet and some spandex and embrace your inner Lance Armstrong.

1: Cycling

Have wheels, will travel -- and likely get injured, if NEISS data is any indication.

Bicycle riding sends more people to the ER than any other sport or activity, 2.3 times more than ATV riding [source: NEISS].


The popularity of cycling, from training wheels to extreme mountain biking, lends itself to the higher number of injuries and a chart-topping 541,746 ER trips. But there's one more factor that makes cycling more dangerous than any other sport: other vehicles.

Those who cycle off-road have 40 percent less chance of getting injured [source: Thompson]. When your mom told you not to play in the street, it looks like she had a point.

But for cyclists who do frequent the paved roads of America, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has some tips. Cyclists should follow the rules of the road, it suggests, and enthusiasts should avoid riding at night [source: NHTSA].

So there you have it, the five most dangerous recreational sports in the U.S. If you're going to play, play it safe: "We should take reasonable steps to eliminate avoidable and excessive risk in sports, but we shouldn't live in fear," said Johnson. "Being sedentary is also hazardous to your health."

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. "Adult-Sized ATVs Are Not Safe for Kids; Statistics Startling." April 4, 2011. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www6.aaos.org/news/pemr/releases/release.cfm?releasenum=992
  • Bak, Matthew J. and Timothy D. Doerr. "Craniomaxillofacial fractures during recreational baseball and softball." Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. Vol. 62, no. 10. Pages 1209-1212. October 2004. (Feb. 2, 2012 http://www.joms.org/article/S0278-2391%2804%2900854-7/abstract
  • Johnson, L. Syd. Personal correspondence. Feb. 6, 2012.
  • McKenzie, Lara B., Nicolas G. Nelson and Charles Randazzo. "Basketball-Related Injuries in School-Aged Children and Adolescents in 1997-2007." Pediatrics. Vol. 126, no. 4. Pages 727-733. Oct. 1, 2010. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/126/4/727.full
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Kids and Bicycle Safety." April 2006. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/bike/kidsandbikesafetyweb/
  • Shroeder, Thomas. Personal correspondence. Feb. 5, 2010.
  • Thompson, Matthew J. and Frederick P. Rivara. "Bicycle-related injuries." American Family Physician. Vol. 63, no. 10. May 15, 2001.
  • The Times of London. "Cities Fit for Cycling" campaign. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/contact/
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. "The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System: A Tool for Researchers." March 2000. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.cpsc.gov/neiss/2000d015.pdf
  • U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. "NEISS Data Highlights -- 2010." (Feb. 2, 2012) www.cpsc.gov/neiss/2010highlights.pdf
  • U.S. Government Accountability Office. "All-Terrain Vehicles: How They Are Used, Crashes, and Sales of Adult-Sized Vehicles for Children's Use." April 2010. (Feb. 2, 2012) http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10418.pdf