Rugby union players are four times more likely to wind up as quadriplegics than their rugby league counterparts, new research shows.
A study by Adelaide’s Flinders University Research Centre for Injury Studies analysed severe spinal cord injuries among players of both codes in NSW between 1986 and 2005.
Researchers found 61 cases of Quadriplegia as a result of catastrophic neck injuries – 36 from union and 25 from league.
At best these players were left with slight movement in their shoulders, but most were completely paralysed from the neck down.
The data, collated from the Australian Spinal Cord Injury Register, showed union players were four times more at risk, probably because of differences in the nature and rules of play.
The freshest figures showed that 6.8 of every 100,000 rugby union players will suffer the injury, compared to just 1.6 out of every 100,000 league players.
Tackles accounted for 78 per cent of these injuries for league, while injury for union players was split between scrums (30 per cent) and tackles (33 per cent).
Despite both codes introducing initiatives during the mid 1980s to reduce serious injuries, figures remain consistently high in NSW over the 19-year period.
And Australia-wide, there also has been no significant reduction in acute spinal injury rates for either rugby code from the mid-1990s to 2002.
Presenting the findings to the National Injury Prevention Conference in Sydney, injury researcher Jesia (Jesia) Berry questioned how effective these measures have been.
“League and union have bought in stricter enforcement of rules to reduce illegal play, injury prevention exercises, selection criteria for particular player positions, and safety education programs for schoolchildren,” Ms Berry said.
“But despite these efforts to improve safety, Cervical spinal cord injury rates in NSW appear to have changed little for either rugby code in the past two decades.”
She said many researchers believed increasingly forceful play and the lack of strict penalty enforcements for illegal and dangerous tackles were to blame.
“Whatever it is, it’s clear we urgently need some code-specific preventative measures to help limit these hugely debilitating injuries,” the researcher said.
Statistics presented to the conference on Thursday showed that league and union injuries account for more than 30 per cent of all sport and leisure-related hospitalisations in NSW.