Spinal cord injuries in Australian footballers 1997–2002

David J Carmody, Thomas K F Taylor, David A Parker, Myles R J Coolican and Robert G Cumming
Med J Aust 2005; 182 (11): 561-564.


Objective: To review acute spinal cord injuries (ASCIs) in all Australian codes of football (rugby union [RU], rugby league [RL], Australian Rules football [ARF] and soccer) for 1997–2002 and to compare data with those of a 1986–1996 survey.

Design: Retrospective review of hospital records, and structured interviews with injured players.

Participants and setting: Patients admitted to any of the six Australian spinal cord injury units with a documented football-related ASCI over the period 1997–2002.

Outcome measures: Average annual incidence of ASCIs per 100 000 players in the different codes, final Frankel grading of injuries, and wheelchair status.

Results: Fifty-two footballers (45 adult men and seven schoolboys) suffered ASCIs between 1997 and 2002. The average annual incidence of ASCIs per 100 000 players was 3.2 for RU, 1.5 for RL, 0.5 for ARF and 0.2 for soccer. While there has been little change in incidence since the 1986–1996 survey, there has been a trend towards less severe injuries in RU and RL, but not in ARF. There have been no scrum injuries in RL since 1996, when the scrum stopped being contested. Seven injuries occurred in RU scrums, six at the moment of engagement of the opposing teams. The incidence of 2-on-1 and “gang” tackles (involving multiple tacklers) in RL is disturbing. Overall, 39% of injured players became permanently wheelchair-dependent.

Conclusions: There continues to be good reason to revise the laws of scrum engagement in RU. The laws relating to multiple tacklers in RL should be examined. The insurance cover for injured players is grossly inadequate. The longstanding need for a registry of spinal cord injuries for all football codes regrettably remains unmet.

Please login with your free MJA account to view this article in full

  • David J Carmody1
  • Thomas K F Taylor2
  • David A Parker3
  • Myles R J Coolican4
  • Robert G Cumming5

  • 1 Department of Orthopaedics and Traumatic Surgery, Royal North Shore Hospital, St Leonards, NSW.
  • 2 Centre for Education and Research on Ageing, Concord Hospital, Concord, NSW.



We gratefully acknowledge the willing cooperation of the injured players and their families. We would like to thank the staff of the spinal cord injury units for assistance in arranging interviews. The study was funded by SpineCare Foundation, a charity registered in NSW.

Competing interests:

None identified.

  • 1. Yeo JD, Walsh J, Rutkowski S, et al. Mortality following spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord 1998; 36: 329-336.
  • 2. Taylor TKF, Coolican MRJ. Spinal cord injuries in Australian footballers, 1960–1985. Med J Aust 1987; 147: 112-118.
  • 3. SpineCare Foundation and Australian Spinal Cord Injuries Units. Spinal cord injuries in Australian footballers. ANZ J Surg 2003; 73: 493-499.
  • 4. Frankel HL, Hancock DO, Hyslop G, et al. The value of postural reduction in the initial management of closed injuries of the spine with paraplegia and tetraplegia. Part 1. Paraplegia 1969; 7: 179-192.
  • 5. SAS. Version 8.02 [computer program]. Cary, NC: SAS Institute Inc., 1999–2001.
  • 6. Burry HC, Calcinai CJ. The need to make rugby safer. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1988; 296: 149-150.
  • 7. Toscano J. Deterioration before admission to a spinal cord injury unit. Paraplegia 1988; 26: 143-150.
  • 8. Haylen PT. Spinal injuries in rugby union, 1970–2003: lessons and responsibilities. Med J Aust 2004; 181: 48-50. <MJA full text>


remove_circle_outline Delete Author
add_circle_outline Add Author

Do you have any competing interests to declare? *

I/we agree to assign copyright to the Medical Journal of Australia and agree to the Conditions of publication *
I/we agree to the Terms of use of the Medical Journal of Australia *
Email me when people comment on this article

Responses are now closed for this article.