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Basketball can be a little more gentle on your body than some sports. You don’t even really have to wear protective gear if you’re not into it. In most cases, regular play can actually improve your physical condition. Still, basketball injuries are a reality.
Basketball is a competitive sport. It puts repetitive stress on your limbs and that stress adds up. Today more than ever, younger athletes in particular are pushed to play more and play harder. And we’ve seen the effects, stress injuries occurring at a rate never seen in the past from youth leagues up to the NBA.
Here we’ll take a look at the most common injuries across basketball. We’ll explore how and why these injuries can occur. And most importantly, we’ll take a look at the best ways to avoid and mitigate these injuries so that you can maximize your playing time and comfort. And there’s some surprising data in here that will help you maintain awareness of the most common basketball injuries and make the right decisions to avoid them.
How common are basketball injuries?
Statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics point to basketball as one of the most common sports-related injury sources in youth ages 5-14. Of 3.5 million injuries evaluated in children ages 5-14, 170,000 emergency room injuries were tagged as basketball-related. By comparison, only football and bicycling caused more injuries at 215,000 and 200,000 respectively.
This may speak more to the popularity of basketball than anything. It may come as a surprise, but basketball is pretty easily the second most popular team sport on the planet. It continues to be the popularity leader in youth team sports in the US. In the UK, it’s second only to football (soccer). A crazy amount of people, of all different ages, all around the world, are playing basketball.
And unfortunately that means that a whole lot of people are getting injured playing basketball. Thankfully, injury rates vs. participation rates are a little lower than some other popular sports.
What are the most common basketball injuries?
Overwhelmingly, the data points to the ankle and knee as the weakest links. Age, gender, skill level, it doesn’t matter, the knee and ankle keep coming up in injury reports. Medical studies across youth leagues, and straight up to NBA stats all confirm this.
The reason is painfully obvious ;). These are your jumping joints. The game is largely dependent on using your feet and legs explosively and leaning on your ankles and knees to absorb impact.
There is a notable difference in the injuries that do arise between knees and ankles. Ankles tend to over-extend. Knees tend to fatigue.
Across the board, sprained ankles are the most common basketball-related injury. And they occur much for frequently in games and during physical contact. You go up in the post, your body is shifted, and you come down on a tweaked ankle. This scenario probably accounts for over 1/4 of all basketball-related injuries.
Knees are a little different. Knee injuries are almost always a result of over-use. It’s not one event that hurts your knees but constant use without rest. And this is far more likely to result in swelling and soreness than an acute injury like torn tissue or ligaments.
So this isn’t the whole story, but it definitely suggests that if you want to avoid basketball injuries, you’re well-served to put some focus on the proper use and care of your knee and ankle joints.
Other Common Basketball Injuries
Beyond ankles and knees, there are several issues that come up often, just a little less frequently…
At the NBA level, lumbar injuries are the third most common injury, just behind ankles and knees. Considering that back injuries are particularly persistent and problematic, they’re definitely worthy of attention.
And a lot of these lower back injuries are associated with other pain or injuries int he lower extremities. Constant jumping can strain your lower back and throw it out of alignment. This in turn can cause alignment issues further down the body.
These are typically not acute injuries, so the best way to manage them is likely to emphasize proper form and conditioning. Strengthen the muscles supporting your thorax and take care to develop aligned movements.
Jammed and broken fingers come up a lot in basketball-related emergency visits. In youth leagues, finger sprains are second only to ankles in frequency. If we were able to get a better look at non-emergency injuries, hand injuries might just take the lead.
Finger splints and braces may help protect against finger injuries, but they can also interfere with shooting and ball handling. In some rule books, rigid supports are not allowed. The tradeoff then doesn’t seem worth it to me unless playing through an existing hand injury.
We’ve already covered the ankles, but injuries to feet in general foot are quite common. Personally, this has been one of my most consistent issues in basketball. The force you’re putting on your feet ends up causing strain that can result in all kinds of common foot pain.
One of the best ways to combat this is to find the right insoles and the right shoes. Evaluate your feet, your leg alignment, the specific issues you’re facing, and find a combo that can remedy or alleviate that issue.
Scratches and pokes to the face are also a relatively common occurrence in all levels of the sport. This usually comes in the form of scratches and these injuries are typically quickly and easily resolved. Even facial fractures can mean a relatively short recovery time. Protect the injury with a basic face mask and you’re back on the court. The eyes are a little more complicated, but eye injuries are actually quite rare.
Similar to knee injuries, hip injuries manifest with extended use. Muscles and tissue surrounding the hip joint gets inflamed or damaged with overuse. Muscle strains are the most common hip-associated injuries. Hamstring strains, which are qualified as hip injuries, make up about 3% of reported NBA injuries.
These problems can be difficult to manage and persistent. There’s not much you can do to push recovery time or avoid injury to the hip and upper legs beyond conditioning and rest.
Basketball Injury Risk Factors
Obviously a lot of this is up to fate. Nobody is trying to get themselves hurt. But there are certain factors that may put you at a greater risk of injury. The TLDR here is that giving your body ample time to recover is the best way to avoid serious basketball injuries. But let’s take a closer look at some of the more commonly cited risk factors.
This is the big one. It’s probably the only factor that you really need to consider. All of the studies I was able to find point to usage as being the most important factor in managing injuries in basketball.
You need to give your body time to recover…
In this day and age, many basketball players play more constantly and from a younger age. that’s more jumpers, more sprints, more sketchy landings, more posters, more screens, more everything.
We know that if you don’t give yourself time to recover, this overuse builds up. And this is evidenced in an increasing rate of knee injuries earlier in playing careers.
Ankle injuries may be more common, but knee injuries are often a much more complex issue. A sprained ankle has a clear cause, while knee pain can arise seemingly spontaneously and be more difficult to diagnose and control.
You’ve gotta monitor your playing time in order to control overuse injuries. A top draft prospect, Victor Wembanyama maintains a 10+ hour sleep regimen simply because he needs that recovery time. You can’t push your body this hard without giving it time to recover.
Height or Weight
It’s a common assertion that bigger players get hurt more often. Bring up Zion or Embiid in conversation and you’re likely to elicit some variation of, “they’re just too big to stay healthy.” With a 7’3″+ Wembanyama as the top draft prospect for 2024, his extreme height is constantly referenced as cause for concern. If you’ve convinced yourself that size is an issue with injury-prone athletes, it’s easy to look around and find a broken big man or two to confirm that bias.
And the logic would seem to function just as well. Every extra pound you carry puts that much more stress on every movement you make. Longer limbs will amplify that force through leverage. This means that every jump, every landing, every step you take delivers a force on your bones and joints that is a factor of height and body mass.
Injury risk must increase with height and weight then, right?
Turns out, not really…
In 2010, a comprehensive statistical analysis of NBA players over 17 years found no significant correlation between height or weight and injury rate. In practical terms, this should put most concerns to rest.
Now, there are a couple of issues with this study…
First, injuries were tabulated according to event as opposed to playing time. A player that checks into a game for 30 seconds is handled the same as a player who logs 30 minutes. We know that game minutes are where most injuries occur, and we know that injury risk increases with usage. We’re missing a big part of the picture here.
Second, when you’re looking at the extremes, the data thins out. As we push into the 7’+ range, there aren’t enough players for any statistical findings to be significant. So again, the data fails us right where we need it.
You can see this clearly in these 4 graphs from the study. These graphs plot injuries/player as a factor of age, years in the league, weight, and height.
Through the middle, the plots hold steady. At the edges, they become erratic. This is because the data at these fringes is sparse. There are only a handful of players in the upper and lower extremes, so one injury can throw the plot way off.
I suppose you could still make the argument for the extremes. Players over 7′ for example, are still rare enough that any statistical finding would be insignificant. Look at that spot where the graph peaks around 225 cm (or around 7’3″). At the time this analysis was completed (in 2010) there were only a handful of players over 7’3″ in NBA history to have ever played significant minutes.
And weight and age are similar. There aren’t enough players above 130kg or over 38 to take a statistically significant impression. And that’s actually a little surprising if you think about it. You might slow down a little with age, but you’re not getting more fragile, not within the competitive age range of the NBA at least.
Ultimately, height, age and weight are probably not significant injury risk factors for the average basketball player.
There’s a little less data to go by when it comes to breaking down basketball injuries by position. The NBA reports injuries reliably and we can easily match that with position, so we’ll have to look at the pros and just understand that things are probably a little different in less competitive situations.
An interesting data point here is the length of NBA careers. The majority of careers going over 20 years are Centers and Power Forwards. This points mostly towards several factors; the 3 and 5 positions are less demanding on the body, and the skills required to play those positions diminish more slowly, or that big players are more resilient.
We’ve already mostly put the ‘large players are resilient’ debate to rest. There’s definitely something to the guard positions being more demanding. A 2021 study associated ACL tears with a higher frequency of driving to the basket.
And it’s pretty well accepted that you’re gonna lose some speed and cutting ability as you age. But a big ole world-class post player isn’t getting any shorter. If you can get away with making those quick movements a less dominant feature of your game, you can extend your competitive career significantly.
How to avoid basketball injuries
There are a number of distinct approaches we can take in trying to protect ourselves and our teammates against basketball injuries. This may be the most important section of the whole article here. And the best course of action would be to incorporate several of these tips into your own game.
Protect your knees and ankles
If the knees and ankles are the weakest links, what can we do to protect them?
Well, aside from letting them rest and recover, using knee and ankle supports is a proven way to help reduce injury risk. In 2011, a study of over 1400 High School basketball players showed a clear reduction in ankle sprains when players wore lace-up ankle braces.
Ankle injuries being the most common basketball injury, playing with ankle support may well be the most effective single adjustment you can make to reduce your personal injury risk.
The literature is not as clear on knee braces. If you’re recovering from a knee injury, your doctor will probably recommend a specialized brace.
One of the most common knee injuries in basketball is basic patellar inflammation. This is often referred to as ‘jumper’s knee’. If you’re dealing with some light knee pain, a simple knee brace like this one can make play more comfortable and help ease recovery.
But if your knees are in good condition, you may be better served by targeted knee conditioning than knee support.
A pretty simple solution, and not a catch-all, but quality orthotics can offer some benefits in terms of injury management. First of all, they can help absorb some of the impact that’s grinding away at your joints. But they can also help correct or maintain proper alignment and posture so that those impacts are absorbed more efficiently.
I’ve got a comprehensive breakdown of basketball insoles for you. It covers everything you need to know about finding the right basketball insoles for your specific issues.
Avoid Dangerous Movements
If you want to avoid basketball injuries entirely, you can simply stop playing basketball. Come on, that would just be ludicrous. We’re not going to do that. But maybe we can spot some dangerous behaviors that can be reduced.
There are 2 data points that show up in several of the studies I’ve looked into here.
The first is that game injuries are a lot more common than practice injuries. You’re playing harder and there’s more on the line, so you’re more likely to put yourself into a sketchy situation. We can’t do much about this. If you get game minutes, you have to take them.
The second data point may be a little more helpful. Injuries are more likely when contact is involved. Pushing up against another player is going to make it that much harder to control your steps.
This is still really difficult to manage, but at least we know where the danger lies. If you’re going up in traffic, you can work on maintaining body awareness and scoping your landing.
Particularly for those 2 key problem joints, conditioning may have a dramatic effect on injury reduction. My key reference point here is a casual Canadian study involving more than 90 youth basketball teams in Calgary. Teams assigned a SHRed-style warmup program saw a 36% reduction in knee and ankle injuries in comparison to the control group.
The study is explicitly labeled as ‘quasi-experimental’, and that doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Still, it’s a strong suggestion that the right warmup routine can help avoid knee and ankle injuries.
Check out this Youtube video for a thorough example of a typical SHRed warmup.
A perhaps less common strategy to combat issues where joint stability is a root cause, balance exercises may be valuable in promoting the joint stability that helps mitigate basketball injury. Balance boards are a common tool for improving balance and strengthening balance mechanisms.
From personal experience here, I attribute my most dramatic injury directly to a problem with what I was putting into my body. I was a cook through most of my twenties. This meant long nights and early mornings, regular alcohol consumption, little sleep, and a crazy diet.
One early morning, mildly hungover and running on very little sleep, I crouched down and felt a pop. My right knee never fully recovered. That’s all just me being dumb, taking terrible care of my body, and not having insurance in this America.
One of the best references in athletic nutrition in recovery and injury prevention comes from a study covering combat sports. Causing and avoiding injury is kinda the whole point of combat sports, so I kinda trust what these guys have to say.
The study suggest that any serious injury that keeps you off the court for a sustained period of time should be supported with protein and amino acid intake. Consuming extra protein can go a long way in controlling the muscle loss associated with prolonged inactivity. The study goes deeper in exploring specific nutrient groups in response to specific injuries, but that stretches beyond the scope of this already lengthy article so I’ll leave it to you to dig deeper.
Why are basketball players getting injured more frequently?
Injuries are undeniably more common in basketball today than ever before. This affects all levels of the sport. But it’s gotten to the point where it’s major focal-point in the NBA discourse.
Surface-level analysis leads a lot of commentators to put that on the players. There’s a tendency to look to the past and simply suggest that players of the past were tougher and better-conditioned. As the narrative goes, players these days are over-payed and under-played.
This is a ridiculous assertion.
First of all, if you adjust for inflation, NBA salaries peaked in the 90’s. Second, todays NBA play moves at an incredible pace across a wider area of the floor. And third, these players are starting way younger on a much more grueling path to the league.
One of the best indicators of this is a marked increase in knee injuries in recent years. Knee injuries don’t come out of thin air. This is a massive and powerful joint. Knee injuries are a result of accumulated damage. They wear out.
Players are playing more hours at a faster pace than ever before, from early childhood, way up into the league and that’s why players are dealing with more injuries earlier in their careers.
Notable Studies on Basketball Injuries
This article is informed by a number of studies and some of my own data analysis. I’ve linked the studies where applicable, but here’s the list in consolidated form. There’s a lot of data here if you really wanna dig deep into understanding how basketball affects your body.
This is the largest study I reviewed, analyzing 4.3 million pediatric basketball-related visits to emergency units. The reported injury breakdown looks like this.
- 21.7% ankle sprains
- 8% finger sprains
- 3.9% knee sprains
- 7.8% broken fingers
- 3.9% facial lacerations
- 3% head injuries
- 0.8% eye injuries
One interesting finding is that teenage girls are a little more susceptible to knee injury. Boys get more facial lacerations and more concussions.
A broad analysis of NBA statistical data covering a 17-year period. The reported injury breakdown looks like this.
- 62% lower extremities
- 14.7% ankle injuries
- 13.2% ankle sprains
- 11.9% knee inflammation
- 7.9% lumbar strain
- 3.3% hamstring strain
The study found no injury correlation in age, height, or weight. It confirms what multiples studies say, that ankle injuries are the most common and knee injuries cause the most missed time.
This study monitored 110 16-19 year olds over 5 years. 54 injuries occurred across 1666 games and 9684 practices. 37% of injuries involved ankles. Injuries are at least 5x more common in games. Injuries happen through player contact.
This one looks at playing style and compares it to incidence of ACL tears. It confirms that players who cut and drive towards the basket more frequently are more likely to tear an ACL.
The big takeaway here though is that once you recover from an ACL tear, even at elite levels, total recovery is achievable.
In 2011, a study surveying over 1400 male and female High School basketball players shows pretty clearly that laced ankle braces can reduce the frequency of ankle injury.
Alright, not directly basketball-related, but this study examines the role of nutrition in injury prevention and recovery.