Despite the general misconceptions 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 proposed by Coach Gasparin.
I have conducted the largest investigation of competition-related fencing injuries in the world today and published the results of my five-year study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 2008. I was especially interested in time-loss injuries (i.e. those injuries that occurred as a direct result of participating in a fencing competition that were sever enough to require the competitor to withdraw from the competition.) The results indicated that the risk of significant injury was very low. Especially for children and youth (ages 8 to 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 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 situation 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 (USA Fencing) Under-17 and Under-16 divisions was 0.34 per 1,000 AE. Results from the High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance System for 2008-10 indicated the rate for a time-loss injury in high school football is 38 times greater than for fencing; soccer was 12 times greater and basketball eight times greater. The high school sports with the lowest rates – girls’ volleyball (1.00 per 1,000 AE), boys’ base-ball (1.27 per 1,000 AE) and girls’ softball (1.66 per 1,000 AE) – was still 3 to 5.5 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 rank (i.e., least risk) of the 22 sports examined.
It should be also noted that there have been no fatalities in the 100-year history of fencing in the USA and only three total worldwide from 1995-2010 (competitions and practice). However, research on fatal injuries in high school athletes in the USA shows that just in the decade from 1999-2009, 120 American football players, 49 basketball players, 18 soccer players, and 12 baseball players died as a result of participation in their respective interscholastic sports in the USA.
Finally, the types of fencing injuries leading to time-loss were typical for sports with stop-start, rapid change of direction actions (i.e., sprains, strains, ruptures). Approximately 52 percent of all reportable injuries were strains and sprains (26.1 percent and 25.5 percent respectively), followed by contusions (12 percent). Injuries specifically associated with the use of fencing equipment (puncture, laceration) and which generate the greatest concerns about the safety of the sport were very rare. (Only one puncture occurred in a junior fencer – a small hand wound that did not require hospital. This is among more than 25,000 young fencers competing in almost 100,000 matches.)
Fencing is a demanding sport with a long history and a promising future. Over the past decade, rule changes have expanded opportunities for participation in all disciplines (foil, epee, and saber) to both sexes and all ages. It is not an exaggeration when I say that participants range in age from under 8 to 80 years.