Top 5 sports that cause spinal injuries

01st Nov 2018

Top 5 sports that are the most impactful for your back and spine

Australia really needs to do more to reduce the amount of spinal injuries from sport. There are four sports that stand out as causing the majority of spine, neck and head injuries. They are rugby league, rugby union, Australian rules football and cricket. Next in line are the contact sports—boxing and UFC. The sport that causes the most concussions is mixed martial arts (MMA).

The four team sports that top the list occur because they are extremely popular with huge numbers of players. Boxing and UFC, while more dangerous in terms of injury, have much smaller numbers of participation. MMA is a very brutal sport where participants bash the living daylights out of each other. Thankfully, this has very few participants compared to other sports.


Practising isn’t perfect

When it comes to team sports, most injuries occur during training rather than scheduled games. During competition, there are a lot of checks and balances in place to prevent injuries. Head gear, effective refereeing and a strict adherence to the rules has seen the number of injuries decrease during games.

However, when training, players are generally not paying as much attention and are less likely to follow the rules. Often the wearing of head gear is not enforced and all these factors make a huge difference. Rugby league, in particular, has most of its head and neck injuries occurring during training.


Age of reason

People are also continuing to play sport later in life, even if it’s just a regular social game. Unfortunately ,this has also seen an increase in spine and neck injuries among the older age group. They often present with more severe pain levels because they’ve been putting up with low-grade pain for a long time. As we age, the discs in our spine become less flexible and this can often lead to chronic instability, particularly if exacerbated by bumps and thumps from the sporting field.

In many cases, older people are suffering from back pain that has an organic cause—not just arthritis or mechanical back pain. There might be a fracture or a herniated disc so I always look more carefully and investigate further with older people.

There is also some concern that players are getting bigger and moving at greater velocity. The force of contact between players is therefore increasing and that becomes a factor in injuries. While there is no hard data to confirm this, since 1998 there seems to be an increasing trend of concussion.


Who makes the call?

Not only do players need more education about preventing injuries, but there needs to be a qualified person available on professional and semi-professional fields of play who can accurately assess a concussion. They also need to have the power to remove a player from the game.

On suburban fields right across the country, it’s only the coaches who now make the call. Usually they are not qualified in head injuries. Often their attention is split, and generally they are looking after dozens of things at once. Having a qualified independent person responsible for the welfare of the players would be a vast improvement.

In professional games, there’s a whole political issue about removing a player from the filed of play. Most coaches don’t want to take out their best player from a close game. An independent doctor or qualified medico could make the call without any conflict of interest and without facing any kind of dilemma. It should also be impossible to overrule their call in the matter.


About Dr Richard Parkinson

Dr Richard Parkinson is a Fellowship trained neurointerventional neurosurgeon and minimally invasive spinal surgeon based in Sydney. He has been performing minimally invasive and complex spinal surgery for 18+ years and has built his reputation on his conservative approach to surgery. He operates at Sydney’s leading private hospitals and has performed surgery on a very significant volume of patients requiring both straight-forward and complex spine surgery. Read his full biography here.