Objective: To determine the frequency and circumstances of serious cervical cord injuries associated with rugby union and league football in New South Wales.
Design: Retrospective review of patients with rugby football-related cervical spinal cord injuries.
Setting: The two central spinal units in NSW, from January 1984 to July 1996.
Outcome measures: Admission to spinal units; injury resulting in permanent tetraplegia.
Results: During the review period, 115 rugby football players (56 union and 59 league) were admitted to the spinal units because of cervical spinal cord injuries. 49 patients had resultant permanent neurological deficits (complete tetraplegia [quadriplegia])--26 associated with rugby union and 23 with rugby league. Two patients died of injury sequelae within two weeks of admission. There was no significant change in the rate of football-related admissions to spinal units for either code. There was a small decline in the number (from 15 in 1984 to 1987 to 7 in 1992 to 1996) and incidence (from 1.2 to 0.5 per 10,000 participants) of patients with tetraplegia associated with rugby union. When this decline was tested as a trend over the years, it was found to be statistically significant (P = 0.06). No significant trend was found in the tetraplegia data associated with rugby league. Cervical spinal cord injuries leading to complete tetraplegia were most commonly associated with scrum-like plays in union and with tackles in league.
Conclusion: Serious cervical spinal injuries associated with both codes of rugby continue to occur in NSW. Rugby football in its various forms is still an inherently dangerous game.