Study: Athletes who specialize suffer more ankle, knee injuries

A new study has found that athletes who specialize in a single sport are more likely to suffer lower-extremity injuries.

Photo: Kevin Hoffman
Photo: Kevin Hoffman

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and funded by the National Federation of State High School Associations Foundation, was completed during the 2015-16 school year. Twenty-nine Wisconsin high schools, totaling more than 1,500 student-athletes, took part.

Here are some of the findings:

• Athletes who specialized in one sport were twice as likely to report previously sustaining a lower-extremity injury while participating in sports (46%) than athletes who did not specialize (24%). In addition, specialized athletes sustained 60 percent more new lower-extremity injuries during the study than athletes who did not specialize. Lower-extremity injuries were defined as any acute, gradual, recurrent or repetitive-use injury to the lower musculoskeletal system.

• Among those who reported previously sustaining a lower-extremity injury, the areas of the body injured most often were the ankle (43%) and knee (23%). The most common type of previous injuries were ligament sprains (51%) and muscle/tendon strains (20%).

• New injuries during the year-long study occurred most often to the ankle (34%), knee (25%) and upper leg (13%), with the most common injuries being ligament sprains (41%), muscle/tendon strains (25%) and tendonitis (20%).

Of those who took part in the study, 34% played just one sport, with soccer having the greatest number of specialized athletes.

The study’s findings are nothing new, as several researchers have concluded that athletes who specialize are more at-risk for injuries. But it does help to validate what athletic trainers have preached year after year — multi-sport athletes are stronger and healthier.

The idea behind specialization is that it gives athletes a better chance to play at the next level or land a college scholarship. An overwhelming number of studies continue to prove that’s not true, and most NCAA coaches say they prefer to recruit athletes who played multiple sports.

We’ve written at length about this topic, and this fall our “SportsMed” columnist tackled the issue with his article, The dangers of early-sport specialization.

Click here for more on the University of Wisconsin study.

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