Why do rugby and football have such high injury rates?

Rugby and football are amongst the most popular sports in the world. However, in terms of injury frequency, they’re also two of the most high-risk sports you can play. Whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been playing in the local league for years, it’s always worth knowing how to keep yourself safe and reduce the risk of preventable injuries. 

Injury rates in rugby and football: An overview

The physical nature of both rugby and football means that players incidentally risk injury. Footballers, for example, suffer higher rates of injury per hour than most other occupations in the UK. As a result of chronic or acute injury, almost half of professional football players are forced to retire early.

Across both sports, there are also concerns about the long-term consequences of play. 

With ex-professionals realising that game protocol and official advice were to blame, more athletes are seeking justice through medical negligence claims in retrospect. Repeated instances of concussion, for example, have been linked to early-onset dementia, with hundreds of ex-players joining a brain injury lawsuit against governing bodies. 

Sports injury rates and known risk factors

Football is a fast-paced, intense game that carries a significant risk of injury – especially when aggressive behaviour is involved. Rugby is a collision sport, which significantly increases the likelihood of injury too. The most common injuries across both include: 

  • Concussion

A concussion is a traumatic brain injury that temporarily affects brain function, and it’s the most widespread injury in rugby. Figures recorded by the RFU in 2021 found that there were at least 22 concussion injuries for every 1,000 hours of playing time. This prevalence is over five times higher than the second-most common injury, which was damage to the hamstring muscle. 

  • Sprains and strains

A sprain happens when a muscle or ligament is overstretched or twisted too far in an unnatural motion. Players can reduce the risk of suffering a sprain by warming up thoroughly before exercise and resting rather than overexerting tired muscles. 

  • Overuse injuries

Overuse injuries are often sports-related. They involve low-level trauma to bone, muscle, ligament or tendons and result from repetitively using the same parts of the body. Also known as microtraumas, overuse injuries include small tears in muscle fibres, bruising of the bone, or stress on a tendon. 

  • Dislocated shoulders

A dislocated shoulder is when the top of the arm bone pops out of and away from the round socket that makes up the shoulder blade. Sudden impact, including falls at speed, is a high-risk factor for this injury because the shoulder joint is so flexible. This injury is widespread. 

  • Knee injuries

Knee injuries plague the careers of professional footballers. Ligament injuries are the most common, while torn cartilage (also known as meniscus tears) can be widespread too. These injuries can be difficult to recover from, with many athletes later going on to require surgery before restoring full knee function. 

Tackling brain injuries in rugby: Circumstantial action

New regulations from the Rugby Football League (RFL) aim to reduce the chances of tackle-induced concussion and head injuries. The changes will come into effect from 1st July and state that the legal tackle height should be lowered from the shoulders to the ‘base of the sternum’ in community rugby. 

However, these proposals have been met with backlash from the rugby community and are yet to be proven effective – especially not without drawing from the appeal of the game. 

Summary: How can players prevent injuries?

Ultimately, players will continue to play by the rules and still get injured. The chance of accidental injury can never be entirely removed, but there are ways to reduce the frequency and severity. These include:

  • Making sure players stick to playing positions they feel confident in
  • Avoiding playing in slippery conditions or those with low visibility
  • Wearing the appropriate protective kit and equipment for the game 
  • Following official sporting guidance and regulations

With the right preventative measures in place, the love for the game will always triumph over the risks faced by players.