Serious sports injuries aren't confined to athletes -- spectators also run that risk, a new study finds.
"You don't expect to be injured when you attend a sporting event as a spectator," said Dr. Amit Momaya, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "You certainly don't expect to die, yet there are any number of cases where spectators are injured, some fatally, at sporting events."
One little girl had a close call after she was struck by a line drive at a 2017 baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York City, winding up in the ER with multiple facial injuries. The Yankee organization has since expanded the protective netting at the stadium.
For the study, Momaya and his colleagues scoured two databases, PubMed and Embase, looking for studies on spectator injuries. They found that spectator injuries are uncommon, but when they occur they can be life-threatening and life-changing.
Going back to 2000, the researchers identified 181 spectator injuries. Most of these (123) came from automobile or motorcycle racing. Cycling accounted for 25 injuries, cricket 12, baseball 10, and hockey eight.
Among the injuries, 62 were fatal. Of these, 38 were from vehicle racing, 17 from cycling, four from hockey, two from baseball and one from cricket.
Most of these injuries occurred when a spectator was hit by a ball, puck, car or other projectile, Momaya said. In some cases, injury occurred as a player crashed into the stands, hitting a spectator, he added.
The researchers think a central database that records all spectator injuries is needed to see if these injuries are increasing and to guide efforts to limit dangers to sports fans.
"For example, Major League Baseball recently increased the area covered by netting to reduce the risk of fans being struck by foul balls," Momaya said in a university news release. "Without a systematic way to record injuries, there is no way to measure whether that effort is sufficient or if netting should be extended."
Some obvious ways to protect fans -- such as impenetrable barriers at racetracks to prevent vehicles or crash debris from hitting spectator areas -- can be implemented, he said. In addition, higher transparent barriers in hockey arenas could prevent pucks from striking fans.
Many of injuries at bike races were due to crashes between spectators and other vehicles, including a publicity caravan, security motorcycle and a tanker truck. Also, in car racing, injuries occur when support vehicles hit spectators, the researchers found.
Crowd control, event planning and staff training also play important roles in spectator safety, Momaya said.
"There is a fine line between an enhanced fan experience on one hand, balanced against spectator safety on the other," he said. "As a physician, I think safety is the top priority."
The report was published recently in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.