The risks and benefits of playing rugby


Mr Tim Sinnett, an orthopaedic consultant at King Edward VII’s Hospital, on the health implications of a physically and mentally demanding contact sport

As we all enjoy this year’s Six Nations Championship, the world’s oldest international rugby tournament, an area rarely discussed in all the excitement is the health implications of the sport, which is often marred by a reputation for causing injuries.

Undeniably, the nature of rugby is physically and mentally demanding. It is a fast-moving, high-intensity impact sport, which inevitably puts the players at some risk. And spectators of the game won’t be surprised to hear that whether a player is tackling or being tackled this can, in some circumstances, lead to mild or severe injury.

Joint pain and inflammation are very common among both amateur and professional players. The stop-start nature of the game and the huge amount of stress placed on the whole skeleton can exacerbate this issue.

Mr Tim Sinnett of King Edward VII’s Hospital

Mr Tim Sinnett of King Edward VII’s Hospital

Other injuries that I see regularly in patients – and were, incidentally, the cause of my own retirement from rugby – are sprains and fractures to the feet and ankles. In a contact sport, it’s easy to fall awkwardly, or have another player land on you, which can damage bones and joints.

In most cases, injuries like these can be manageable with the right treatment. Ensuring you seek medical support quickly, and that adequate recovery time is allowed, will determine how successfully players can come back to the game.

Given the explosive and sometimes violent nature of rugby, it is fair to say that injury risk can be quite high, and in the case of amateurs this is particularly likely for those who aren’t fit enough, don’t give their bodies enough preparation, or fail to warm up. Stretching and building muscle won’t necessarily completely protect you from breaks and sprains if a 130kg front rower falls on you, but it can help reduce the severity of injury and any longer-term consequences.

And when rugby is played safely, there are enormous potential benefits. The actions and movements during rugby add stress to our bones, and in response to this greater demand for extra strength, our bones build protective calcium along the stress lines. This increases your bone density, making your bones strong, and can reduce the risk of conditions such as osteoporosis later in life.

Equally, 80 minutes of highly active play means that rugby increases your cardiovascular fitness. This protects and improves the function of the heart and lungs, which leads to improved flow of blood and oxygen to different parts of the body. It also allows you to maintain a healthy body weight, which again can limit the strain on joints and bones.

Although the risks of playing rugby are well known, we are increasingly seeing the advantages of the sport being recognised. As the Six Nations Championship builds to a climax, I’m eager to see how the participants unite and showcase this fantastic game. I just hope I don’t end up having to see any of the current England squad in my King Edward VII’s Hospital clinic!