September 26, 2022
For many, the return of fall means the return of many popular sports. With football, soccer and other sports in full swing, fans and players may rest easier knowing that sports-related injuries have fallen by nearly 50% in the past 10 years.
We looked at sports-related emergency room (ER) visits between 2012 and 2021 to see what’s changed. We’ll highlight the sports in which people are most likely to be injured — and who’s most likely to get hurt. Additionally, with health care spending on the rise, stick around for tips on preventing injury or reducing your ER bill.
On this page
• Key findings
• Sports-related injuries declined nearly 50% between 2012 and 2021
• Injuries among preteens and young teens rose beyond pre-pandemic numbers
• Injuries most common while playing basketball
• Sports-related concussions have fallen by 64%
• Balancing health and fitness: Top expert tips for this fall season
• Sports-related injuries are down by 47% in the past 10 years. More than 1.1 million sports-related injuries were treated in emergency departments in 2021 — down from more than 2.1 million in 2012. About 763,000 injuries were treated in 2020 — the fewest of any year analyzed — meaning the pandemic could have kicked off a downward trend.
• Injuries among preteens and young teens saw a greater uptick after the pandemic. Despite overall sports-related injuries remaining lower than before the pandemic, injuries among preteens and young teens ages 10 to 19 — the most likely age groups to be injured — rose more in 2021 than they fell in 2020.
• More than a quarter (26%) of injuries occurred while playing basketball — the most of any sport. Following that, 20% of injuries occurred while playing football and 14% while playing miscellaneous sports such as cheerleading, gymnastics and wrestling.
• The number of sports-related concussions has fallen by 64% in the same 10-year period. In 2021, nearly 57,600 sports-related injuries were concussions, versus almost 94,700 in 2012. Meanwhile, sprains and fractures are the most common, accounting for 47% of sports-related emergency room visits. Overall, just 2% of sports injuries required someone to be admitted to the hospital.
Sports-related injuries declined nearly 50% between 2012 and 2021
Over the past 10 years, sports-related injuries have fallen by 47%. More than 1.1 million sports-related injuries were treated in emergency departments in 2021 — down from more than 2.1 million in 2012.
Number of sports-related injuries by year
Number of injuries
While sports-related injuries have consistently declined over the past decade, the pandemic might have spurred a particularly steep drop-off. Year-over-year decreases in sports-related injuries never surpassed 10% between 2012 and 2019; then, in 2020, they plummeted by 51%. That’s a drop from around 1.5 million injuries to nearly 763,000 — marking 2020 as the year with the fewest sports-related injuries.
After 2020, the number of injuries rose to more than 1.1 million. Although that’s a jump of 49% — not insignificant by any means — the number of injuries in 2021 was still lower than any year we tracked before the pandemic.
This comes as Americans are spending less time playing sports. According to ValuePenguin health insurance expert Robin Townsend, this may be another reason why sports injuries are falling.
“COVID-19 prompted a dramatic drop in sports participation and related injuries, but interest started to fade before the pandemic,” Townsend says. “Family priorities have been shifting due to increasing costs, time commitments and the competitive nature of organized sports.”
Consumers 15 and older spent an average of 1.47 hours a day participating in sports, exercise or other forms of recreation in 2021 — down from an average of 1.67 hours in 2012.
Injuries among preteens and young teens rose beyond pre-pandemic numbers
Young Americans were more likely to get hurt playing sports than older Americans. Specifically, preteens and young teens ages 10 to 14 were most likely to visit the emergency room after a sports-related injury, followed by teens ages 15 to 19.
That’s not the only notable takeaway about these age groups. Despite a decline in sports-related injuries across the decade, the number of injuries reported among preteens and teens ages 10 to 19 rose more in 2021 than it fell in 2020.
To put that in context, injuries fell by 56% in 2020, then rose by 58% in 2021. While a net difference of 2 percentage points doesn’t seem like much, that’s significant compared to overall sports-related injuries, where the year-over-year increase in 2021 was 2 percentage points lower than the year-over-year decline in 2020.
Number of sports-related injuries among Americans ages 10 to 19
Number of injuries
Beyond the age groups most likely to experience a sports-related injury, it’s worth noting that boys and men were overwhelmingly more likely to injure themselves than girls and women. Overall, boys and men accounted for 71% of sports-related injuries regardless of age.
Their likelihood of participating in a sport may have something to do with their chance of getting hurt. Take, for example, the gender disparity in high school sports. According to the latest High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), nearly 4.4 million boys participated in a high school sport during the 2021 academic school year, compared with 3.2 million girls.
Injuries most common while playing basketball
By sport, Americans were most likely to injure themselves while playing basketball. Between 2012 and 2021, more than 4.4 million injuries treated at emergency departments occurred while playing basketball — representing more than a quarter (26%) of all sports-related injuries. Following that, football was the second most common sport leading to injury, causing 3.3 million injuries, or 20% of all sports-related injuries.
Understandably, these sports were most likely to cause injury as they’re typically the most popular sports among Americans — particularly when it comes to high schoolers, who make up a large chunk of the age group most likely to experience a sport-related injury. Football in particular is consistently the most popular sport. According to the NFHS survey, almost 1 million high schoolers played football across U.S. schools during the 2021-2022 school year. With nearly 900,000 participants nationwide, basketball is the third most popular sport for boys (and the fourth most popular sport for girls).
Generally, boys are more likely to play both sports, which may explain why they’re more likely to get hurt than girls. Just 3,094 high school football players were girls. Similarly, around 370,000 girls played basketball, compared with more than 521,000 boys.
Number of injuries by sport
Number of injuries
% of total injuries
Miscellaneous sports (such as cheerleading, gymnastics and wrestling)
Lacrosse, rugby and miscellaneous ball games
Hockey (all kinds)
Track and field
On the other end of the list, sports generally less popular were the least likely to lead to injury. Overall, there were just about 2,800 injuries from fencing across the past decade, making it the sport with the fewest injuries. That’s followed by boxing, with about 169,000 total injuries. There were just over 4,100 high school students participating in fencing during the 2021 academic year. (And while boxing isn’t a high school sport, about 13,000 students participated in a school martial arts program.)
Sports-related concussions have fallen by 64%
The overall decline in sports-related injuries is great, but that’s not where it ends. The number of concussions is also falling at a significantly faster rate. Overall, sports-related concussions have fallen from nearly 94,700 in 2012 to just about 57,600 in 2021 — a drop of 64%.
Number of sports-related concussions by year
This comes alongside a growing public concern for sports-related brain injuries, which spurred new preventive measures across the last decade. For example, after several notable football player deaths were attributed to traumatic brain injuries (TBI), a 2011 lawsuit brought against the NFL concluded with the establishment of a nearly billion-dollar compensation fund for injured players — setting a standard for sports establishments’ duties of care towards their players.
As a result, the majority of sports organizations have integrated new rules and regulations designed to increase brain injury awareness and reduce the likelihood of experiencing a concussion. Many organizations now have set protocols for treating concussions during games. For example, many sports leagues are required to immediately evaluate players for concussions, with those diagnosed with a concussion prohibited from returning.
Sprains, fractures most common sports-related injuries
Americans were generally not likely to get hurt via concussion — they accounted for just 5% of sports-related injuries over the decade analyzed. Meanwhile, sprains were the most common, at almost 31% of emergency room visits. An additional 17% of injuries resulted in a fracture.
Beyond that, injuries were most likely to fall into an unspecified “other” category (17%), but some other common injuries include:
• Abrasions and bruises (13%)
• Deep cuts or skin tears (7%)
• Dislocations (3%)
Overall, just 2% of sports-related injuries required hospital admission.
Balancing health and fitness: Top expert tips for this fall season
Sports-related ER visits are fairly common, but Townsend says you may be able to avoid them by taking precautions before you play.
“Be sure to warm up, use proper technique and let old injuries heal fully before getting back in the game,” Townsend says. “If you do get hurt, you should always use the ER for severe injury, but you might save money by going to an urgent care center for a milder medical issue.”
Once you check your health insurance policy to get a good idea of what your copay will look like, Townsend says it’s always important to review your bill. “If it seems excessive or there are questionable charges, ask the billing department to review it with you,” she says. “And don’t be afraid to negotiate your bill. If you don’t succeed at first, we recommend you keep trying. Finally, you can ask if the hospital has a payment plan, rather than charging the cost and paying interest.”
For those with medical debt from a previous sports injury, some recent developments may mean your debt won’t impact your credit score. Earlier in 2022, the three nationwide credit reporting agencies announced plans to remove nearly 70% of medical debt from credit reports — which was expected to offer some financial relief (starting July 1) for the 23% of Americans with medical debt.
Researchers analyzed Consumer Protection Safety Commission (CPSC) National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) data to see how sports-related injuries requiring emergency room visits have changed between 2012 and 2021. Specifically, we included the following 13 sports categories in our analysis:
• Hockey (all kinds)
• Lacrosse, rugby and miscellaneous ball games
• Miscellaneous sports (such as cheerleading, gymnastics and wrestling)
• Racquet sports
• Track and field activities and equipment
Additionally, researchers analyzed CPSC NEISS data to find the age groups and gender most likely to get injured while playing sports — and what injuries they’re most likely to sustain.