Fencing and Safety
We are frequently asked if fencing is a safe sport. It turns out that fencing ranks as one of the safest sports around, according to Dr. Peter Harmer, a professor of sports science and medicine at Willamette University and member of the United States Fencing Association's and International Fencing Federation's medical commissions. We are sometimes asked to provide information to our clients and parents about fencing safety, and so we've published the information below, an excerpt from a letter by Dr. Harmer. This was part of information we provided to a recent client, and we hope you find this helpful and informative:
Despite the general (mis)perceptions about the dangers involved with participating in fencing, the research data clearly indicate that it is a very safe activity, particularly for novices in well supervised and carefully organized teaching situations run by experienced coaches with good equipment, such as the program operated by WFA.
I have conducted the largest investigation of competition-related fencing injuries in the world to date, and published the results of my five-year study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008. I was specifically interested in time-loss injuries (i.e., those injuries that occurred as a direct result of participating in a fencing competition that were severe enough to require the competitor to withdraw from the competition). The results indicated that the risk of significant injury was very low.
"...the research data clearly indicate that it [fencing]
is a very safe activity, particularly for novices..."
Specifically, for children and youth (ages eight-17 years old), the time-loss injury rate was 0.27 per 1,000 athlete-exposures (AE) (athlete-exposures is a metric used in sports epidemiology to compare injury rates across different sports). Another way to look at this number is that there was one (1) time-loss injury for approximately every 2,000 fencing matches that took place in this age group. These data are from a separate analysis for comparisons among different age groups that I presented at the 2008 American College of Sports Medicine meeting (the abstract is published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2008). It is also important to keep in mind that the fencing values come from national-level competitions. The rate for teaching and practice situations is even lower.
Comparing the injury rate for fencing with other popular sports, for high school-aged athletes, the combined rate for United States Fencing Association (USFA) Under-17 and Under-16 divisions was 0.34 per 1,000 AE. Results from the High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System for 2005-06 indicated the rate of a time-loss injury in high school soccer was 14 times greater than for fencing and 10 times greater in basketball. The high school sports with the lowest rates, boy’s baseball (1.77 per 1,000 AE) and girls’ softball (1.78 per 1,000 AE), were still 6.5 times higher than for fencing. In the matrix for establishing appropriate levels of medical care in intercollegiate athletics published by the National Athletic Trainers Association in 2000, fencing was tied with golf as the lowest ranked (i.e., least risk) of the 22 sports examined.
It should also be noted that there have been no fatalities in the 100 year history of fencing in the USA and only three in fencing competitions world-wide from 1995-2007. However, research on fatal injuries in high school and college athletes in the USA shows that just in the decade from 1995-2005, 143 American football players, 63 basketball players, and 20 soccer players died as a result of participation in their respective sports.
Finally, the types of fencing injuries leading to time-loss were typical for sports with stop-start, rapid change of direction actions (e.g., sprains, strains, ruptures). Approximately 52% of all reportable injuries were strains and sprains (26.1% and 25.5%, respectively), followed by contusions (12%). Injuries specifically associated with the use of fencing equipment (puncture, laceration) and that generate the greatest concerns about the safety of the sport were very rare (only one (1) puncture occurred in a junior fencer (a small hand wound that did not require hospital care. This is among more than 25,000 young fencers competing in almost 100,000 matches.)
It is clear that the risk for fencing in general, and for the types of programs offered by the WFA in particular, is significantly lower than that for more "mainstream" sports activities but that the types of injuries that occur are similar (e.g., sprains, strains, etc).
Peter A. Harmer, Ph.D., MPH., ATC., FACSM
Chief Medical Officer, USA Fencing
Medical Commission - International Fencing Federation
Exercise Science - Sports Medicine, Willamette University