Epidemiology of non-submersion injuries in aquatic sporting and recreational activities

Sports Med. 2003;33(10):745-70. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200333100-00003.


Although the issues of drowning and near-drowning in aquatic sporting and recreational activities receive considerable attention in the epidemiological literature, there is not a recognised literature on non-submersion injuries occurring in these activities. This review draws together the epidemiological literature on non-submersion injuries and describes the incidence, nature and causes of these injuries, common risk factors, and strategies for prevention. Activities covered by the review include swimming, diving, boating, surf sports, fishing, water polo and water sliding. For most activities there is a dearth of good quality descriptive studies, with most involving cases-series designs and few providing estimates of incidence. Inconsistencies in inclusion criteria and the reporting of incidence rates makes comparisons within and between activities difficult. Incidence rates were identified for most activities and in general the incidence of injury was low, especially for more serious injury. However, some activities were associated with severely disabling injury, such as spinal cord injury (diving) and amputation (from propeller strikes in water skiing and swimming). Only three studies reporting the significance of postulated risk factors were identified. Lack of knowledge about the water being entered and alcohol consumption are significant risk factors in recreational diving; increased blood alcohol concentrations were reported to increase the risk of death in boating; and obesity and tandem riding were reported to increase the risk of injury on public water slides. Few evaluations of preventive measures were identified. Two studies reported reductions in the incidence of water slide injuries following the introduction of design changes and supervision, but neither had a non-intervention comparison group. Improvements in swimming and diving skills were reported in three studies, but these were not designed to measure changes in the risk of injury.This review demonstrates that there is a need for well-designed epidemiological research on non-submersion injury in aquatic sporting and recreational activities. The first priority should be for studies designed to describe accurately the incidence, nature, severity and circumstances of these injuries, followed by research on the significance of postulated risk factors. Once this research has been undertaken, interventions targeted at reducing the incidence of injury in aquatic sporting and recreational activities can be designed and evaluated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Injuries / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Recreation*
  • Swimming / injuries*