Study shows protective equipment not very effective for rugby players

February 09, 2005

CHAPEL HILL-- Rugby union, a full-body-contact team sport played in the United States but more popular in other English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, has much in common with U.S. football.

Among the similarities are blocking, tackling, passing and strenuous attempts to get a ball across a goal line while preventing the opposing team from doing likewise.

And, of course, frequent injuries, a small percentage of which are catastrophic, life-altering events that turn recreation into tragedy. A new study conducted by researchers at the universities of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, now shows part of the reason why.

Protective equipment used in rugby union has only limited effectiveness in preventing injuries.

"We found that the risk of concussion was not reduced by the use of padded headgear or mouthguards," said lead researcher Dr. Stephen Marshall, assistant professor of epidemiology and assistant professor of orthopaedics at the UNC schools of public health and medicine.

Hard-shell helmets and most body padding like U.S. football players wear are not permitted in rugby union, said Marshall, also a biostatistician at the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center.

"We did show, however, that use of mouthguards tended to lower the risk of mouth and face injuries by close to 50 percent, and padded headgear appeared to lower the risk of damage to the scalp and to ears by about 40 percent," he said. "Support sleeves cut the risk of sprains and strains about close to 40 percent as well."

He and colleagues found no evidence that shinguards and application of tape or grease protected players.

A report on the UNC Injury Prevention Research Center findings appears in the February issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology. Besides Marshall, UNC authors are Dr. Dana P. Loomis, professor of epidemiology, and Dr. Anna E. Waller, research assistant professor of emergency medicine. Other authors are David J. Chalmers and Yvonne N. Bird of the University of Otago; Kenneth L. Quarrie, now of the New Zealand Rugby Union; and Michael Feehan, formerly of Otago and Harvard universities and now owner of Observant LLV, a private Wellesley, Mass., research consulting company.

The study involved analyzing data gathered from 304 rugby players in Dunedin, New Zealand, each week during the 1993 season. The detailed information concerned injuries, protective equipment use and participation in practice and games.

"I think the bottom line is that rugby is a wonderful but dangerous sport, and that new types of protective equipment need to be developed if we are reduce the toll of injury," Marshall said.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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