Professional athletes face a constant risk of injury while pushing their bodies to their limits. Here are the most common injuries that end careers.
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Career-ending injuries are gruesome and traumatic for athletes. These injuries generally mark the end of the athlete being able to fully participate in the sport they love.
If you’re hoping to become a professional athlete, know the odds are slim. About 2% of high school athletes play in the NCAA, and fewer than 10% of those athletes go pro, regardless of the sport. And you have less than a 1% chance of skipping college to go pro straight out of high school.
Once you make it, life gets even harder. Avoiding injury is only one way of beating these odds (you’ll need a lot more than physical conditioning), but it’s an important one.
The life of a professional athlete is hard and involves being exposed to a variety of weather conditions, working irregular hours, and putting your body at exceptional risk. Although protective gear is used, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that professional athletes and sports competitors (42% of whom are self-employed contractors) have one of the highest injury and illness rates of all occupations.
Here are five debilitating injuries that can completely end your career as a professional athlete.
The effects of concussions on professional athletes get the most media attention, but tears in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and other knee-related injuries are more likely to end a sports career.
What is an ACL?
Your ACL is a ligament that runs diagonally in the middle of the knee that keeps the tibia aligned with the femur. When it’s torn, you lose rotational stability in your knee and risk your leg falling out of alignment at the knee. It can prevent you from ever playing sports again, least of all at a professional level.
A 2016 study of 559 NFL players who had surgical procedures found those with torn tendons and ligaments were least likely to recover. The study tracked athletes for at least two years after their surgeries, from 2003 to 2013. Even those with broken bones recover faster, and ACL tears don’t just happen in football.
Torn ACLs are also common in hockey, baseball, basketball, and more. In fact, it’s estimated that 250,000 people will suffer from a torn ACL this year, with 100,000 of them requiring ACL reconstruction surgery.
It doesn’t just affect professional athletes either; the rate of ACL injuries among teenage athletes has spiked in recent years too. They are at higher risk because maturing skeletal structures can have decreased joint strength making them susceptible to injury.
Along with your knees, your ankles are also important to your mobility. The Achilles tendon is a band of tissue linking your calf muscles to your heel. It’s essential to mobility and movement, and athletes are especially vulnerable to this injury.
Achilles was an important hero in the Trojan War and Greek mythology. In order to protect him from injury and death, his mother dipped him in the River Styx, making him vulnerable everywhere but the spot where she held him on his heel. This led to “Achilles heel” becoming a term for weakness.
It holds true in real life, as the Achilles tendon joins the ACL as the most common career-ending sports injury.
The proliferation of concussions is a problem among athletes, whether professional or amateur. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that as many as 3.8 million sports-related concussions happen each year. It leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can have long-term negative effects on any athlete of any age.
In fact, approximately 15.1% of student-athletes report having at least one concussion while competing or training. Approximately 21% of traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in kids are caused by sports. They’re so widespread that they led to a Will Smith movie keeping the public’s attention on it and helping lead to change.
While it may not immediately end a career, the life-altering consequences of concussions impact everybody.
Sports are responsible for a large portion of the broken bones that occur annually. It’s estimated that 7.5% of lower-limb fractures and 16.5% of upper-limb fractures are caused by playing sports. Although the recovery time of broken bones is shorter than that of torn tendons and ligaments, the severity of the pain is much higher.
You’ve likely seen broken bones in leagues ranging from the NFL to the UFC and even WWE. It makes me grimace every time it happens, and you know someone will be immobile for two to six months to recover from it.
Although nerve injury is less common than others in professional athletes, the impact is so detrimental that it can’t be ignored. Peripheral nerves like your sciatic nerve can be injured by playing sports, causing a host of incapacitating problems.
Sometimes nerve damage won’t interfere with your daily activities. However, it can quickly worsen and lead to long-term problems. Even if the cause is treated, the effects can be permanent.
Regardless of the injury or cause, nothing is worse than being permanently sidelined as an athlete. In addition to the physical pain, you’ll also go through psychological and mental challenges as you try to adjust to the new reality. Having your career prospects derailed without a backup could leave you feeling like your entire life is over.
However, there are plenty of resources available to help. You’re not alone – I’ve personally been through it myself. Every year more athletes are injured and have to reinvent themselves and find a new place in the world.
You may never recover to your former potential, but you can still live a long time with a high quality of life if you’re mindful. Don’t hesitate to check out the resources around this page or even reach out directly to me if you have any specific questions or concerns.