Rugby union injuries to the cervical spine and spinal cord

Sports Med. 2002;32(10):633-53. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200232100-00003.


Injuries to the cervical spine are among the most serious injuries occurring as a result of participation in rugby. Outcomes of such injuries range from complete recovery to death, depending on the degree of spinal cord damage sustained. Much information has been gained regarding the mechanisms and frequency of such injuries, from case reports and case series studies. The most commonly reported mechanism of injury has been hyperflexion of the cervical spine, resulting in fracture dislocation of C4-C5 or C5-C6. Tracking both the trends of incidence of spinal injuries, and the effectiveness of injury prevention initiatives has proved difficult because of a lack of properly conducted epidemiological studies. Within the constraints of the research published to date, it appears that hookers and props have been at disproportionate risk of cervical spine injury, predominantly because of injuries sustained during scrummaging. While the scrum was the phase of play most commonly associated with spinal injuries throughout the 1980s in most rugby playing countries, there has been a trend through the 1990s of an increasing proportion of spinal injuries occurring in the tackle situation. The majority of injuries have occurred early in the season, when grounds tend to be harder, and players are lacking both practice and physical conditioning for the physical contact phases of the sport. A number of injury prevention measures have been launched, including changes to the laws of the game regarding scrummaging, and education programmes aimed at enforcing safe techniques and eliminating illegal play. Calls for case-registers and effective epidemiological studies have been made by researchers and physicians in most countries where rugby is widespread, but it appears to be only recently that definite steps have been made towards this goal. Well-designed epidemiological studies will be able to provide more accurate information about potential risk factors for injury such as age, grade, position, gender and ethnicity. Research into the long-term effects of participation in rugby on the integrity of the spinal column is warranted.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletic Injuries
  • Cervical Vertebrae
  • Female
  • Football / education
  • Football / injuries*
  • Football / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Risk Factors
  • Seasons
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / classification
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / etiology*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / prevention & control
  • Spinal Injuries / classification
  • Spinal Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Spinal Injuries / etiology*
  • Spinal Injuries / prevention & control
  • Spine / abnormalities
  • Spine / pathology
  • Spine / physiology