Exploring Rugby’s Health Risks – What Can be Done?

While the sport of rugby union continues to gain international repute and break new ground in nations such as the US, it remains most synonymous with the UK and Great Britain.

Interestingly, rugby in the UK has been doing a great deal of soul-searching recently, as the link between playing the sport consistently at a high level and an increased risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease like Motor Neuron Disease (MND) has become increasingly apparent.

We’ll explore the most recent findings below, while asking how the sport might evolve as a result in the future.

What’s the Risk for Rugby Players?

Of course, the risk for rugby players applies to those who participate in both codes of the sport, with former rugby league star Rob Burrows one of the latest to be diagnosed with MND.

Interestingly, studies have shown that former rugby players are 15-times more likely to develop MND in later life than the average person, with this reaffirming the findings of further research published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

This study, which was led by Professor Willie Stewart (who’s the consultant neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow), compared the health outcomes among 412 male and Scottish former rugby players with more than 1,200 matched individuals from the general population.

Broadly speaking, the findings revealed that former international rugby players had an approximately two-and-a-half times higher risk of developing neurodegenerative disease than expected.

This is despite the fact that this demographic also had a slightly higher age at the time of their death, while the risk also varied by disease subtype. The risk of incurring dementia was twice as high, for example, while there remained a more than 10-fold higher risk in the case of motor neuron disease).

How May Rugby Change as a Result?

While such health risks are being explored across all contact sports, the impacts and level of injury seems to be much more pronounced in rugby.

To this end, it’s no surprise that schools have already looked to ban contact in the sport and instead looked to practice iterations of touch rugby. This is similar to the school intervention in junior football, where heading the ball is increasingly being outlawed by local authorities.

In January 2021, it was revealed that World Rugby had further strengthened its commitment to injury prevention by announcing a zero-tolerance approach to reckless head contact in the sport.

This meant that players would be automatically dismissed for recklessly tackling their opponents at head height, while the sport’s updated concussion protocol dictates that players who have incurred this type of injury must not return to play until they’ve been medically to do so after a minimum 24-hour break.

The affected player must also be symptom free before returning to action, with medical clearance reserved until this key piece of criteria has been met.

The Last Word

Behind the scenes, World Rugby has also launched detailed, evidence-based contact training load guidance for teams, which lays out advised limits that promote player welfare and best practice.

The authority has also launched a partnership with leading independent experts to provide wider brain health education to players, while leveraging Prevent Biometrics’ instrumented mouthguard technology to better understand the frequency and impact of specific head impacts at all levels of the game.

This will undoubtedly unlock new insights and lead to further changes to the sport over time, with the potential for head impacts to be outlawed completely as the game is changed to create a safer environment for every single player.