Wheelchair rugby is a high-octane team contact sport changing the lives and mental health of the spinal cord injury patients who play it. A new study from the University of Houston Department of Health and Human Performance found that frequent participation in wheelchair rugby was associated with lower levels of depression and stress among men with tetraplegia.
The study, funded by TIRR Memorial Hermann and published in the journal Spinal Cord, found that while about half of all spinal cord injury patients suffer from symptoms of psychological distress, just 17 percent of the 150 wheelchair rugby players who participated in the study had symptoms. Furthermore, athletes who practiced wheelchair rugby two or more times per week scored significantly lower on depression and stress tests compared to those who practiced once a week or less.
“It’s such a unique sport, and there’s so much camaraderie where participants come together in a safe environment with people just like them,” said Stephanie Silveira, UH graduate student and lead study author. “The teammates help each other with not only how to play, but with different life skills as well.”
There are around 276,000 people living with spinal cord injuries in the United States and 80 percent of them are men. While previous studies have shown that participation in adaptive sports in general has a positive impact on mental health, this is the first study to focus on frequency of practice in just one sport.
“Participating in multiple wheelchair sports can be really expensive, so that’s not feasible for some. The great finding with this study is you can still have great results playing one sport two times a week. We met men who were totally transformed by playing the sport,” said researcher and assistant professor Daphne Hernandez, who worked on the study..
The research team also included assistant professor Michael Cottingham and associate professor Tracy Ledoux.
Steve Kearley suffered a spinal cord injury during his senior year of high school in 1988. He was active in sports before his injury and wanted to remain active after. Eventually, he helped start the TIRR Texans, the only U.S. Quad Rugby Association team in Houston, where he is currently a player and coach.
“Through this sport, I was introduced to what I was capable of achieving in life—from watching and learning from other guys that were living life fully. I am physically stronger, more independent and as competitive as ever,” said Kearley. “Wheelchair rugby has taught me so many lessons that have led to success on, and equally important, off the court. I have not quit on the court playing rugby or in the court of life. I love life and I live it to the fullest. It’s in large part because of what I have learned from playing wheelchair rugby.”
According to the United States Quad Rugby Association, there are 600 wheelchair rugby athletes nationwide, but only 36 women are on U.S. rosters. In an effort to increase visibility, the University of Houston Adaptive Athletics program will host a four day wheelchair rugby summer camp open to men and women June 22 through June 25 at the UH Recreation and Wellness Center. It is free of charge for participants and transportation will be provided to and from the airport when flying to Houston.
By Chris Stipes
University of Houston