Neurology Study: Contact Sports and Concussion in Rugby

Nuerology Study: Contact Sports and Concussion in Rugby

In a study that compared Rugby Players to Swimmers and Rowers, study author Ravi S. Menon, Ph.D., FRSC, of Western University in London, Canada, found that contact sports have a correlation with brain damage and concussion.

According to a new study published in the June 17, 2020, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, the study compared rugby players to other female college athletes competing in the non-contact sports of swimming and rowing.

Study Into Contact Sports Conducted

101 female college athletes took part in the study. This included 70 rugby players and 31 rowing or swimming athletes. The study followed a subset of the rugby players for at least two years. It also followed swimmers and rowers for one year.

In terms of rugby union, the fact that the tackler and the tackled player are at risk, is well established. What this study has found is that exposure at any level, can result in changes to a player [subject] microstructure of the white matter, including in nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain. This white matter controls basic emotions like fear, pleasure, and anger. In some of the rugby players, the changes progressed over time.

While any contact sport such as football, basketball, and American Football may result in injury. Rugby, with players’ intent to stop the forward progress of the opposition, putting bodies and especially heads, in a compromised position (in the contact area). These results indicate that only after a short term, affects can be found more in rugby union. More so than in non-contact sports.

England’s wing Lydia Thompson (L) and England’s fly-half Emily Scott (R) tackle Canada’s wing Magali Harvey (C) during the international women’s rugby union test match at Twickenham, London, England (Photo credit ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Even with no concussions, the repetitive impacts experienced by the rugby players [even during training] clearly had effects on the brain,” said Menon.

Study: Contact Sports and Concussion in Rugby

Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of all the athletes during in- and off-season play. With the brain scans, researchers examined how water molecules moved throughout the white matter. This was to determine if there were microstructural brain changes.

Researchers found differences in the functional organization of the brain too. When compared to swimmers and rowers, rugby players had changes in connectivity. How the brain communicates – between the areas of the brain that control memory retrieval and visual processing.

“While we only looked at these impacts during a few events during the season, previous research has shown these kinds of subclinical impacts may accumulate over years of participation in contact sports.”

“More research is needed to understand what these changes may mean and to what extent they reflect how the brain compensates for the injuries, repairs itself or degenerates so we can better understand the long-term health effects of playing a contact sport.”

Conclusion – how to prevent brain damage in Rugby?

With growing evidence of new and established studies, many will conclude that the game is counter-productive. The risk is too large. Current players will, and continue to suffer from injury due to contact sports activity.

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Mouritz Botha of Newcastle receives attention after a neck injury during the Aviva Premiership match at Kingston Park on February 21, 2016. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

HIA tests today are risk-averse, to remove any player from harm. This ‘head injury assessment’ can mean the difference between a serious injury and player welfare. Although, the results of the study by Western University prove that any exposure is harmful.

Head injury protocols have been issued by World Rugby. Players should aim to ‘lower the tackle area’. Promoting less impact that includes the head area should improve the welfare of players. Yet at the center of the argument is, that it is the choice of the individual.

In time,  rule variations, reduced emphasis in the breakdown, changes to contact sports like rugby may alter the sport. But, the focus will – and should – focus on health and welfare first.


The study was supported by the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Brain Canada, Canada First Research Excellence Fund, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


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