Raegan Stokes ‘19
Rugby is the third most popular sport in the world, and its popularity is increasing by 25 percent each year in the United States. Just this April, the first professional rugby organization was started in the United States with only five teams. With rugby’s growing popularity must come the study of common injuries in the sport. It is well known that rugby is a very physical sport. People talk about the notorious cauliflower ears, that players get from the scrum or nasty face lacerations, but what most people do not know is that the most common injury in rugby is actually soft tissue damage. Soft tissue damage is an acute injury that includes muscle strains, ligament sprains and contusions. Although these injuries may not appear to be as serious as a face laceration, they are debilitating to the athlete’s play and should be prevented with the proper training.
In his review article, Kevin Kaplan states that about 41 to 50 percent of all injuries in professional rugby players since 1995 have occured from soft tissue damage and 42 to 55 percent of these injuries occur in the lower limbs. A sprain is a stretching or tearing of the ligaments, whereas a strain is a stretching or tearing of a muscle or tendon. Sprains and strains can be mild and treated with ice, rest, elevation and compression, or they can be very serious and may require surgery to repair the torn muscle, ligament or tendon. A very common surgery for this type of injury is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair. In a study, it was found that the average number of days of playing missed due to an ACL tear was 235 days, whereas the average days missed for a meniscal tear was 155 days. Women are more likely than men to have ACL problems than men because the femur is angled more outward at the top and the lower leg is angled more inward and toward the knee. This causes forces to push outward and lax thigh muscles. Because the thigh muscles are more lax, it causes more stress on the ACL, which must serve as the stabilizer.
In a study done on the English professional rugby union, 72 percent of the recorded injuries were due to contact mechanisms and only six percent were due to foul play. Rugby can be divided into four phases of play: set pieces (scrum and lineout), open play, the tackle and ruck and maul. Over 50 percent of the injuries in rugby happen during the tackle and scrum phases of the game. The hooker and outside center are positions with the highest risk of injury due to the tackling nature of the job. Centers are the first players to tackle and try to secure possession of the ball for their team. The hooker is part of the scrum and tries to “hook” the ball back to their teammates.
Kaplan’s study also found that injuries happen 36 times more frequently in games than in practice. Other factors that increase the risk for soft injury are age and Body Mass Index. Kaplan found that people with a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) were more likely to get injured during play. Considering the statistic that most injuries happen by contact, the players with a higher BMI would be inflicting a higher force when they tackle and would be hitting the ground with a higher force as well. Another interesting statistic is that the most rugby injuries world wide happen between the ages of 10 and 18. This is why preventative training in practice starting at a young age is very important. Regular stretching and muscle strengthening exercises can help prevent muscle strains. It is also important to strengthen the muscles specifically around joints, especially previously injured or weak joints, so as to decrease the possibility of future ligament sprains.
On average a club will have 18 percent of their players unable to play at any given time due to injuries. With an average team of 40 to 45 players, that’s about eight players missing. With soft tissue damage being the most prevalent injury in rugby, it is important that players stretch and strengthen muscles. Considering the fast growing popularity of rugby in the United States, it is important for players to understand the risk factors and preventative measure for these kinds of injuries. It is also important for doctors, therapists and trainers to be aware of these injuries since they will be becoming more prevalent.