New research tackles debate around headgear in rugby

27th October 2017

Protective headgear worn by rugby players may encourage more reckless tackling resulting in an increased risk of concussion, new research by Sheffield Hallam University has found.

A survey of more than 500 rugby union players, from professional to amateurs, found that those who regularly wore headgear experienced more concussions compared to players who wore nothing on their heads. The findings, which have been published in the BMJ Open Sport and Exercise Medicine also highlighted how some respondents gained confidence to 'throw' themselves at the opposition and took away the worry of getting injured. However, when questioned on the effectiveness of wearing headgear, 37% of players, particularly in youth teams, believed that headgear was either 'quite' or 'extremely' effective in preventing head injuries, but only a small proportion believed it helps prevent concussion. Dr Andrew Barnes, senior lecturer in sports biomechanics at Sheffield Hallam's Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, said: "While protective headgear may protect against minor superficial head injuries such as lacerations and abrasions, it does not reduce the incidence of serious head injuries such as concussions. "As a result, players may display reckless tackling behaviours that may increase the risk of serious injuries such as concussion. At the youth level, parents may insist on their child wearing headgear in the belief they are reducing the injury risk, when in fact the opposite could be true." Previous research studies have concluded that players believed headgear could prevent concussion. But Dr Barnes argues these studies were based on small samples of rugby players in the United States and Canada, countries where headgear is mandatory in sports such as American football and ice hockey and has been found to reduce the incidence of concussion. "Our new research has highlighted that players in the UK appear to be better informed about the prevention of head injuries compared to other nations and seem to be aware that headgear is designed to protect against superficial head injuries rather than concussion, but we need to do more to educate players to tackle safely," said Dr Barnes. "We know that most injuries occur in the tackle, accounting for up to 64% of all injuries. We need initiatives aimed at coaches, teachers and referees that focus on ensuring safe tackling behaviours are adopted and retained by youth players. "Player and coach education strategies to reduce injury rates have been found to be effective thanks to schemes in South Africa and New Zealand. Children that are taught a correct technique from a young age are more likely to retain safe tackle behaviours resulting in reduced injury rates at all levels of the game."

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