Rugby neck injuries

The injuries contained in this section are probably the most scary to contemplate. If a rugby player suffers a serious injury in this category, death or permanent disability may be the result.

No South African studies exist, but an overall 1.4 spinal injuries per annum per 100 000 New Zealand rugby players has been recorded. A 2008 study reports the risk of catastrophic injury at 0.8 per 100 000 players in England and around 4 per 100 000 players in Australia and New Zealand, and concludes that rugby risks are perceived to be higher than they really are, compared with other sports and activities such as motorcycling.

Closer to home, a 26-year review of spinal cord rugby injuries by Drs Rob Dunn and van der Spuy in the Western Cape found an alarmingly increasing incidence of injuries up to 1989, escalating to 12 per annum. Many changes have since been made to the rules and in educating the players and coaches, culminating in SA Rugby's Boksmart programme. It is unclear whether a positive effect in terms of injury reduction has resulted.

Most neck injuries occur during tackles, followed by scrums and then rucks and mauls. Hookers and forwards are vulnerable to serious neck injuries when a scrum collapses; locks may hurt their necks and backs when their feet are pulled from under them during a jump in a lineout.

Injuries to the neck area include cervical vertebrae fractures and dislocations, disc injuries, acute strains of the neck and upper back muscles and whiplash.

A disc consists of a circle of connective tissue with a central gel-like core. A slipped disc occurs due to the breaking down of the circle of connective tissue which results in the gel-like core to press upon the nerves. Repeated stress to a rugby player’s neck caused by tackling can lead to the degeneration of the disc. 

The worst kind of back and neck injuries are those that involve the spinal cord. Depending on where along the spine an injury occurs, the result could be paraplegia (paralysis of the legs), quadriplegia (paralysis of all four limbs), or even death. The higher the injury to the spinal cord, the more life-threatening the injury is.

Dangerous symptoms and signs are:

  • Neck pain, which may or may not be severe (don’t judge the severity of an injury by the amount of pain the player complains of). The pain can radiate to the arms. Coughing can increase the pain (however, don’t ask the player to cough)
  • Decreased feeling in the arms or legs
  • Tenderness of the neck
  • Swelling and bruising
  • Muscle weakness or paralysis of the limbs
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unconsciousness

Neck injuries are inevitable in rugby. Yet, a study done last year showed that, amongst rugby players with severe neck injuries in the Western Cape, 60% of the injured said they would advise their sons to play rugby. Only 22% regretted playing.

(Health24, September 2011)

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