Background: Acute spinal cord injury is a serious concern in football, particularly the rugby codes. This Australia-wide study covers the years 1986-1996 and data are compared with those from a previous identical study for 1960-1985.
Methods: A retrospective review of 80 players with a documented acute spinal cord injury admitted to the six spinal cord injury units in Australia. Personal interview was carried out in 85% of the participants to determine the injury circumstances and the level of compensation. The severity of the neurological deficit and the functional recovery were determined (Frankel grade).
Results: The annual incidence of injuries for all codes combined did not change over the study period, but there was some decrease in rugby union and an increase in rugby league. In particular there was a significant decline in the incidence of adult rugby union injuries (P = 0.048). Scrum injuries in union have decreased subsequent to law changes in 1985, particularly in schoolboys, although ruck and maul injuries are increasing; 39% of scrum injuries occurred in players not in their regular position. Tackles were the most common cause of injury in league, with two-on-one tackles accounting for nearly half of these. Schoolboy injuries tended to mirror those in adults, but with a lower incidence. Over half of the players remain wheelchair-dependent, and 10% returned to near-normality. Six players (7.5%) died as a result of their injuries.
Conclusions: The rugby codes must be made safer by appropriate preventative strategies and law changes. In particular, attention is necessary for tackle injuries in rugby league and players out of regular position in scrummage. Compensation for injured players is grossly inadequate. There is an urgent need to establish a national registry to analyse these injuries prospectively.