CrossFit is challenging with a reputation for taking clients/athletes to their physical limit. In some circles however, it has a bad rep for taking people over their limit and causing injury. Fact or fiction? Fortunately, I can approach this question from many angles: statistically, as a sports medicine physician and ex-athlete (and father of a CrossFit instructor)!
Let’s start with statistics-how does CrossFit injury rate compare to other sports activities? A recent survey in Journal of Strength and Conditioning found an injury rate about 3 per 1000 hours of participation for CrossFit athletes. This compares to a rugby injury tally of 12-53 per 1000 hours, youth soccer .5 – 13 per 1000 hours – with NCAA sports injury rates for football and wrestling higher as well. When we start to consider catastrophic injury (head injury, spinal fractures) cheerleading and bicycling are major culprits. So statistically speaking, CrossFit sits amidst the pack as far as injury rates. It is certainly not an outlier.
TAKE IT FROM A SPORTS MEDICINE PHYSICIAN
How about from a sports medicine physician perspective? There are quite a few local CrossFit gyms near my practice and I can say I didn’t see a sudden spike in patients with CrossFit musculoskeletal problems. I do distinctly remember however, when athletic club boot camps first started up I did see a number of athletes hurt doing lunges, squats, and running possibly all with bad form. And that is another point I emphasize as a physician – how can we make sports safer? It starts with correct technique and CrossFit trainers are fastidious about correct form.
CAN CROSSFIT LEAD TO “RHABDO”?
Additionally, there is a lot of talk about “rhabdo” which is rhabdomyolysis or muscle tissue breakdown with heavy exercise. Actually, some rhabdomyolysis occurs every time we exercise and marathoners have notable muscle injury at the finish in their calves. But only in rare circumstance will you see enough “rhabdo” to cause kidney damage. I have never seen it as a physician covering many sporting events. I did see it frequently when stationed with the Marines in North Carolina where a combination of heat, humidity, and running could produce enough muscle breakdown to cause kidney damage probably because of preventable dehydration.
IS CROSSFIT DANGEROUS?
Finally as an ex-athlete who has endured all kinds of injuries from elbow tendonitis training for Bay swim to a broken neck hang-gliding, and many others in between- CrossFit does not seem to me to be particularly dangerous. I have taken a few classes and though it is hard training, one can start easier by scaling down effort and weight at first. In fact, in doing the same activity over and over (elliptical machines come to mind) it is easier to incur injury using the same tendon at same angles repetitively. The benefit in mixing up exercise is better training effect due to “muscle confusion” (not the type of confusion my wife accuses me of). It is less likely to cause repetitive stress injury as stated above and it makes exercise more palatable.
So- is CrossFit dangerous? Well, it’s a sport and all sports involve some inherent danger. CrossFit, as we have seen, does not deviate from the pack. We always have to remember that exercise/sports contain many more health benefits than health hazards. Keep training!