Investigations into the long-term health of rugby players have been boosted this week by the launch of a Global Rugby Health Research Programme. The programme consists of studies in New Zealand, the UK, Canada and Australia, making it the first of its kind and adding a valuable international perspective to the important issue of player health.
The research is an expansion of the inaugural New Zealand RugbyHealth Project, which was led by Auckland University of Technology (AUT), World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby. The study explored the long-term health impacts of playing rugby, producing valuable insights for the rugby community.
The Global Rugby Health Research Programme will build on these findings, further assessing the impact of rugby history on general health and cognitive functioning. Principal Investigators Professor Patria Hume of AUT (who led the foundation New Zealand study), Dr Doug King of AUT, and Dr Karen Hind of Leeds Beckett University are directing the research effort.
“This is a significant development for sport research. Taking the New Zealand RugbyHealth Project to an international level will address the growing public interest in the long-term health outcomes of playing rugby,” says Professor Hume. “We would like to know if the health outcomes found in New Zealand retired rugby players are also evident in other countries.
The New Zealand study found that participants from the two rugby groups involved had sustained substantially more concussions than the non-contact sport group. 85% of elite rugby players and 77% of community rugby players reported having had at least one concussion, versus 23% of non-contact sport players.
Assessment of the neuropsychological health impact of rugby, which was published in Sports Medicine last year, found that players who experienced one or more concussions during their career experienced some cognitive limitations in comparison to players with no history of concussion. These included being less able to understand and process information quickly, make rapid decisions, switch attention between tasks, and to track and respond to information over long periods of time.
The research team’s brain excitability assessment was published in the New Zealand Medical Journal earlier this year, and showed that elite rugby players also had different corticomotor function – the function of neural pathways from the brain that control movement. However, there was no evidence that this difference was related to previous concussions.
The Global Rugby Health Research Programme is a significant follow up to the New Zealand study. The collaboration involves researchers from AUT, Leeds Beckett University (UK), the University of Aberdeen (UK), the University of Regina (Canada), the University of Victoria (Canada), HeadSafe (Australia), the University of Sydney (Australia), La Trobe University (Australia) and the University of Western Australia.
"In addition to applying the New Zealand project to their location, each country's research team is also adding to the core general health and neurological health studies. This will allow us to gain important additional information - in particular on physiological biomarkers, brain health and bone health," says Professor Hume.
The UK Rugby Health Project was the first expansion of the inaugural New Zealand study, and is jointly funded by AUT – as part of a strategic investment fund supporting the international Rugby Codes Research Group – and Leeds Beckett University.
Last month Canada joined the research programme, while the latest addition to the research collaboration came earlier this month, with Australian experts signing on. These studies will also provide cross-sport analysis of the long-term effects of participation, with the inclusion of athletes from Australian Rules Football, soccer, equestrian, ice hockey and American Football.
Dr Adrian Cohen is Co-Principal Investigator of the Australian study and founder of the not-for-profit Headsafe. "This is the ideal opportunity to add past players from our part of the world to this landmark international research programme," he says.
“The long term effects of participation in sport need to be understood and acknowledged so we can care for players today and into the future. Sport has so many positive benefits. Let’s increase our understanding to give participants and their families confidence that we are looking after them throughout their careers and after they stop playing.”
For more information on the study, and details of how to participate, visit www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/ukrugbyhealth. The programme also invites researchers from other countries to contribute; to discuss joining the Global Rugby Health Research Programme, email Professor Patria Hume at firstname.lastname@example.org.