Common Rugby Injuries (and How to Prevent Them)

by | Feb 9, 2018

All sports come with the risk of injury. Play any long enough or hard enough, and you’re bound to tweak, pull, sprain, tear, or inflame something, even if it only keeps you off the playing field for a couple of days. Even golf—a non-contact individual sport so genteel you can play it in a polo and khakis—can directly or indirectly contribute to injuries like lower back pain, rotator cuff tears, or tendinitis in the knees, elbows, and wrists.

Rugby, of course, is no exception. This gridiron contact sport is growing massively in popularity across the country, especially on college campuses and in youth leagues. It also has a strong tradition here in Kansas City—the Blues have been around for more than 50 years, currently compete in USA Rugby’s top-tier Midwest Rugby Premiership, and have sent dozens of players to the national team over the years. And last but not least, it’s also a big favorite in our office—our very own Dr. Foster used to play competitively for the USA Selects program!

Common Rugby Injuries

For those not familiar with the sport, rugby often gets a somewhat exaggerated reputation for physical danger—you’d have to be crazy to play “football without pads,” right? In fact, while we acknowledge that rugby is physically demanding and can be dangerous, most statistics show that rugby is actually safer than football, with fewer major injuries. This is partially due to differences in rules (especially that only backward passes are allowed), technique, and the speed and nature of the collisions.

Nonetheless, injuries remain an unfortunate part of the game. Injuries can be either acute/traumatic or related to overuse.

Traumatic Rugby Injuries

These are the “happens in an instant” injuries, where something gets suddenly pulled, torn, sprained, or broken. Traumatic injuries in rugby tend to be the result of collisions. They include:

  • Ankle sprains. The most common sports injury of all also happens to be the most common rugby injury. All that running, cutting, and tackling can cause the ankle to twist or hyperextend. About 1 in 7 rugby injuries are ankle sprains.
  • Other soft tissue tears and sprains. Knee injuries (including medical collateral and ACL sprains) and shoulder sprains are relatively common due to quick direct changes and impacts.
  • Bone dislocations and fractures. Jammed fingers, dislocated joints, and broken bones in the legs, arms, and clavicle can all occur from forceful collisions or awkward trips and falls.
  • Cauliflower ear. Traumatic hits to the head can cause blood clotting or fluid collection between the cartilage and perichondrium of the ear. This gives the external portion of the ear a permanently swollen appearance.
  • Although rugby players are taught not to lead or target the head, high-speed collisions that cause a sudden stop or reversal of motion can lead to concussions.
  • Superficial injuries. Minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises constitute about 20% of total rugby injuries.

Overuse Rugby Injuries

Rugby injuries can also develop gradually over time. Constant running, repetitive motions, and multiple minor collisions can lead to more chronic aches and pains. Many athletes are tempted to show “toughness” by playing through the pain, but this will only make the problem worse and reduce your risk of more serious future injuries. Frequent examples include:

  • Tendons can suffer from inflammation or even degeneration under frequent stress. In rugby players, tendinitis often strikes the knees, ankles, and Achilles.
  • Shin splints. Also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, this is an “umbrella” term for pain and inflammation in the shinbone (tibia) and/or the soft tissue surrounding it.
  • Stress fractures. When soft tissues get stressed, greater force is transferred directly to the bones—which can then crack. Stress fractures are common in load bearing locations, such as the metatarsals of the foot or the leg bones.
  • Heel pain. Plantar fasciitis, the most common form of heel pain, is common—especially for those wearing ill-fitting or improper footgear.

How to Prevent Injury

Although perfect prevention is an impossible dream, there are many ways to make a game of rugby safer and more enjoyable.

  • Good Condition. There’s a reason that more injuries occur at the beginning of the season than at the end. If you haven’t prepared your body for intense exercise, it’s more likely to fail you when you subject it to stress! Begin your conditioning early and slowly during the off-season, gradually ramping up the intensity before the season begins. Focus equally on strength, flexibility, and endurance—don’t neglect anything!
  • Good coaching. Your coach should train you in proper injury prevention strategy, including proper techniques for positioning, tackling, rucking, scrumming, defensive skills, and how to protect yourself and minimize the impact force of a collision. It’s also important to learn how to recognize the early signs of concussion, and create an environment where injuries are reported immediately and taken seriously.
  • Good equipment. Although rugby players aren’t encased in plastic the way that football players are, it’s still important to invest in quality protective gear. This includes a properly fitting pair of cleats, a scrum cap to protect your ears, and a mouth guard. We also recommend shoulder pads and shin guards for additional protection.
  • Balanced competition. Rugby is often at its most dangerous when there is a significant gap between the age, size, experience, or skill levels of the players involved. Avoid playing with or against players and teams that are clearly above or below your current level of ability. Everyone will be safer—plus you’ll have more fun.

What If I Do Get Injured?

If you do get hurt playing rugby, get checked out by a medical professional as soon as possible. If the injury occurs to your feet, ankles, or lower legs, give Dr. Joel Foster a call at (816) 246-4222. As a former competitive rugby player, he understands what you’re going through and can help you get back on the pitch as quickly as possible.

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