Risk of spinal injuries highest in rugby

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The Independent Online
The number of serious spinal injuries caused by rugby is proportionally higher than any other organised sport, according to the first national figures.

Of 443 reported spinal injuries between 1985 and January 1996, 79 (18 per cent) took place on the rugby pitch. Of these cases, 70 per cent resulted in severe paralysis.

Last week, Ben Smoldon, 21, successfully sued a referee after he was left paralysed following the collapse of a scrum. The new figures reveal that nearly half of all serious rugby injuries occurred in players under 26 and nearly a quarter resulted in the patient needing a ventilator to breathe.

Compiled from spinal injury units across the country, they show that the highest figure for injury was "diving and swimming" (43 per cent). But this figure is disproportionate as it largely comprises people who have dived into shallow water, mostly while on holiday abroad.

After rugby, the next most dangerous sport was horse riding with 12 per cent of injuries.

These figures reiterate those compiled last year by the Trevor Jones Tetraplegic Trust (now Regain) which showed that of 98 cases where sports people suffered serious spinal injury, 53 were rugby players, followed by 20 divers and swimmers.

According to Anne Savage, a retired GP who has been researching the figures, rugby injuries are high because it is not considered "dangerous" and the people who play it are often unfit or not fully grown.

She said in younger players there was often a discrepancy between muscular development and bone development. "You can look well muscled at 16/17 but bones will not have achieved maturity, nor will the neurological system."

She added that there were few serious injuries in top-level rugby because players were in regular training, and their games were well supervised.

A 1994 paper in the journal Sports Exercise and Injury suggested there was a "serious under-reporting" of spinal injuries to the rugby union authorities, adding that most players had no idea of the risks of the game.

The national figures are as yet incomplete, although they are thought to be proportionally correct. But some consultants believe the true figure is much higher, due to the lack of a nationwide scheme of registration.

One doctor said he had walked round a ward and spoken to three patients who had suffered spinal injuries from rugby, before being told that none were registered as such.

"There is a problem that not all spinal injuries go to spinal injury units," said Dr Savage. Patients then became "invisible".

Don Hall, sports injuries administrator for the Rugby Football Union, said it took its responsibility to players very seriously. The RFU, although making moves to increase safety has repeatedly stressed that it is less dangerous than other "dangerous" sports.

But according to Jon Nicholl, acting director of the Medical Care Research Unit at the University of Sheffield, while dangerous sports such as rock- climbing were highest of all, the relatively tiny numbers of people who took part made them statistically insignificant.

But he added that as in Ben Smoldon's case, it was the way the game was played that counted. "If it's played in a very tough and competitive way then the risks are greatly increased."