The lasting impacts of rugby injuries

17 Jul, 2020
Patria Hume

A UK study of former rugby players shows they continue to suffer a high ‘injury load’ after retirement from the sport.

Both elite and amateur rugby union and league players reported suffering back pain and joint pain of varying severity, which they attributed to the long-term impacts of cumulative injuries.

Concussion was the most frequently reported injury, with the highest recurrence and long-term impact. Almost 80 percent of elite and amateur players reported at least one concussion during their career.

Around half of all players had sustained a knee ligament injury, with 25 percent experiencing ongoing problems.

Osteoarthritis, a condition that causes joints to become stiff and painful, was twice as common among elite rugby players, compared to non-contact athletes, and was associated with previous injuries and surgery.

The study was led by Durham University (UK) in collaboration with Auckland University of Technology (NZ) as part of the Global Rugby Health Research Network at AUT and the UK Rugby Health Project, which builds on the original New Zealand Rugby Health Study.

It compared the types and number of injuries suffered by 254 former elite rugby code players, amateur rugby code players, and non-contact athletes such as cricketers in the UK. All of the retired athletes were men aged 21 to 82 years.

Professor Patria Hume at the AUT School of Sport and Recreation, a collaborator on the UK study, said: “This independent UK study supports findings from our study in New Zealand, part funded by World Rugby, regarding increased concussion and injury during playing years, and later osteoarthritis during retirement from sport”.

The findings, published today in the academic journal Sports Medicine, come after a number of high tackles and dangerous play leading to injuries were seen at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Researchers are calling for governing bodies to step-up efforts to prevent recurrent injuries and ensure that players are supported post-retirement.

Understanding the risks of high-intensity sport, with the most frequent injury being concussion, helps inform playing guidelines and safety practices.

The game today is more about players running through opponents, rather than evading them, and this is inevitably going to increase the risk of injury. A case could be made for fewer players on the pitch and more opportunities for evasion. Medics also have a role to play in encouraging sensible injury recovery times, which clubs need to support.

Many of the ex-players who took part in the study competed in rugby over a decade ago, when it was more of a running and passing game. Even so, the injury levels for these individuals as much as nine-fold higher than former non-contact athletes of a similar age.

The lead author of the study, Dr Karen Hind from the Department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Durham University, said: “It is clear from these findings that playing rugby union or rugby league is associated with lasting impacts in terms of injury and pain. Although there have been initiatives and rule changes to try and make the game safer, the rates of injury across a player’s career are still very high. The game is faster, and players are bigger, so the impacts are greater”.

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