Objective: To review acute spinal cord injuries (ASCIs) in all Australian codes of football (rugby union [RU], rugby league [RL], Australian Rules football [ARF] and soccer) for 1997-2002 and to compare data with those of a 1986-1996 survey.
Design: Retrospective review of hospital records, and structured interviews with injured players.
Participants and setting: Patients admitted to any of the six Australian spinal cord injury units with a documented football-related ASCI over the period 1997-2002.
Outcome measures: Average annual incidence of ASCIs per 100,000 players in the different codes, final Frankel grading of injuries, and wheelchair status.
Results: Fifty-two footballers (45 adult men and seven schoolboys) suffered ASCIs between 1997 and 2002. The average annual incidence of ASCIs per 100,000 players was 3.2 for RU, 1.5 for RL, 0.5 for ARF and 0.2 for soccer. While there has been little change in incidence since the 1986-1996 survey, there has been a trend towards less severe injuries in RU and RL, but not in ARF. There have been no scrum injuries in RL since 1996, when the scrum stopped being contested. Seven injuries occurred in RU scrums, six at the moment of engagement of the opposing teams. The incidence of 2-on-1 and "gang" tackles (involving multiple tacklers) in RL is disturbing. Overall, 39% of injured players became permanently wheelchair-dependent.
Conclusions: There continues to be good reason to revise the laws of scrum engagement in RU. The laws relating to multiple tacklers in RL should be examined. The insurance cover for injured players is grossly inadequate. The longstanding need for a registry of spinal cord injuries for all football codes regrettably remains unmet.