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There is a growing perception, especially among parents of schoolboy players, that rugby is a dangerous game.
As my teenage son sustained a shoulder injury recently, I researched the scientific literature to see whether this perception is true.
I soon realised that this is a huge and complex subject, so let’s first focus on the risk of serious or “catastrophic” injury, which includes death, cardiac events, neurological deficit from spinal cord (neck) injuries and traumatic brain injuries.
One of the most in-depth and comprehensive studies that I found was conducted by Dr Colin Fuller on school and club players in the UK. It was published in 2007.
Fuller states that “individual and societal levels of acceptable risk are normally context-dependent and are affected by a complex interaction of individual beliefs, attitudes and personalities.
“In most aspects of life, there are some levels of risk that are generally considered to be acceptable and others that are considered to be unacceptable.”
In this context, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK has defined norms for what can be regarded as negligible, acceptable, tolerable and unacceptable levels of risk.
An acceptable level of risk generally relates to the risk of a serious (catastrophic) injury occurring on average between 0.1 and two times per 100 000 people per year.
Fuller’s study looked at the probability of sustaining a catastrophic injury in rugby union (number of serious injuries per 100 000 players per year) and compared these results with the probability associated with other activities.
The results indicated that for rugby players in England, the risk of sustaining a catastrophic injury (0.84 per 100 000 per year) came within the HSE’s “acceptable” region of risk, while the average risk of catastrophic injury experienced by rugby players in other countries at worst fell within the “tolerable” of risk.
The risk of sustaining a catastrophic injury in rugby union in England was generally lower than that experienced in a wide range of other collision sports, such as ice hockey (four per 100 000 per year), rugby league (two per 100 000 per year) and American football (one per 100 000 per year).
Interestingly, the risk for gymnastics was found to be especially high at 8.2 per 100 000 per year.
The risk of catastrophic injury in rugby union was comparable to that experienced by most people in UK work-related situations (0.8 per 100 000 per year) but less than that experienced by pedestrians (3.7 per 100 000 per year) and car occupants (2.9 per 100 000 per year).
The risk of sustaining a catastrophic injury in rugby union is an order of magnitude lower than the risk of death experienced by women during pregnancy (12 per 100 000 per year) and light years less than high-altitude mountain climbers (one in three of all mountaineers who successfully climb Mount Everest subsequently die from climbing activities).
Fuller concludes from his research that while rugby is a contact sport and injuries are to be expected, the risk of sustaining a serious or “catastrophic” injury is indeed within acceptable limits, and in many cases is less than other contact and non-contact sports.
However, he adds the caveat that rugby administrators must not be complacent about these findings and must always adopt a game-wide strategy aimed at players, coaches and referees for managing the risk of these injuries.
I hope the above information is enough to keep you from discouraging your sons (and even daughters) from donning their rugby boots. - The Mercury
* Dr Glen Hagemann is president of the SA Sports Medicine Association and director of the Discovery Sharksmart Programme.