Aims: To establish trends in frequency of serious spinal cord injuries in rugby and rugby league over a 20 year period and to elucidate patterns of injury from retrospective analysis of cases admitted to New Zealand's two spinal injuries units.
Methods: A detailed survey of unit records with follow-up of selected patients; statistical analysis of data.
Results: During the 20 years 1976 to 1995, 119 rugby and 22 rugby league players (total 141) were admitted to New Zealand's two spinal injuries units suffering serious spinal injuries and 47 of these became permanently confined to wheelchairs. There was a steady increase in frequency throughout the period studied. Of the injuries 83% occurred in forwards and 17% in backs. In rugby it was the scrum which produced most injuries, and in rugby league it was the tackle. The early season month of April produced most spinal injuries. In the eighteen months since intense compulsory educational programmes on safety were introduced by the New Zealand Rugby Union there have been no serious spinal cord injuries from rugby scrums.
Conclusion: Contrary to widespread belief, there has not been a decrease in spinal cord injuries in rugby following rule changes in the mid 1980s. The information produced by this retrospective study has been an effective educational platform to make rugby and rugby league safer.