Injuries in men’s and women’s collegiate rugby

Here in Charleston, rugby has exploded in the last few years. In a town dominated by football, soccer, tennis, and basketball, rugby has become increasingly popular. There are now semiprofessional men’s and women’s teams, college teams, and even high school teams. I bet this growth is occurring across the United States.

Rugby scrumAlong with the rise of the sport here, the number of questions I get from parents about rugby injuries and safety has grown. Are there many broken bones? Are head injuries and concussions common? Is it safer than football?

A study recently published in the journal Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach offers some information on rugby injuries. Karen Y Peck, MEd, ATC and other researchers from the Keller Army Community Hospital and U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York collected five years of injury data on men’s and women’s rugby teams at their institution.

Statistics on college rugby injuries

    • Men had a 30% higher overall incidence rate of injury than women.
    • Male rugby players had more acromioclavicular (AC) joint injuries of the shoulder and more head and face injuries.
    • Among the head and face injuries, men had far more orbit (eye socket) fractures, facial lacerations, eyelid lacerations, and ear injuries.
    • Men were 2.2 times more likely to suffer AC joint injuries than women.
    • Men were 2.5 times more likely to suffer fractures (broken bones).
    • Female rugby players had a 5.3 times higher incidence rate of ACL injuries than the male players.

What do the findings mean?

It is challenging to compare injury rates in rugby (at least in the United States) to other sports because the available injury data is probably incomplete. Rugby is often a club sport at most schools. It is likely that athletic trainer and/or physician coverage and injury reporting are not as consistent as in other sports.

This study compares injuries in men’s and women’s collegiate rugby. Such comparison studies have been done in other sports, such as injuries in girls’ soccer versus boys’ soccer. It is possible, especially with the recent rise in rugby’s popularity, that many athletes are new to the sport. It might not be fair to compare injury rates for men and women, as the players may be very different in terms of experience, technique, and strategy.

Also, this study groups 7s and 15s rugby together. It is also possible that the more open nature of 7s rugby affects its injury rates.

Conclusion and ideas for injury prevention

Despite those limitations, I think the study does provide information that we can use to try to keep players safe.

    • As most studies on female athletes show, female rugby players have a higher rate of ACL tears. While they can be important for men as well, women’s rugby teams should consider learning and routinely practicing ACL injury prevention programs and exercises.
    • It is hard to know what percentage of rugby players in the United States played football earlier in their sports careers. Both are collision sports, but the tackling techniques are very different. Teaching proper techniques and enforcing rules for tackling, starting at the youth levels, might decrease some of the fractures, AC joint injuries, and more.
    • Teams should make every effort to have qualified sports medicine coverage. Athletic trainers for practices and games and positions games are ideal. Emergency services on site or nearby are worthwhile but might be difficult to obtain.
    • We should continue to try to improve our injury data collection. We can design better treatment strategies and injury prevention programs with more complete data at all levels of rugby.

Also read:
Reducing rugby injury: Seven training techniques all players should consider

Lastly, my anecdotal experiences that rugby is fairly safe if played by players following the rules and using good techniques. Yes, injuries can occur, as contact is part of the game. Also, from my few experiences working with the USA Eagles national rugby team, I have seen that the organization works very hard to have medical coverage with doctors, emergency medical services, emergency action plans, and more and place. It has been some of the best medical work I’ve seen at the professional level. I suspect that the national team’s medical staff could and would advise other rugby teams on how to provide optimal medical coverage.

What do you think? Is rugby safer than other sports? What can we do to decrease injuries or better treat rugby injuries?

Reference:
Peck KY, Johnston DA, Owens BD, Cameron KL. The incidence of injury among male and female intercollegiate rugby players. Sports Health.2013;5:327-333.

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