The Growing Link Between Rugby and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Rugby, a sport known for its intense physicality and high-risk nature, has been associated with a concerning rise in chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) cases among players. CTE, a degenerative brain disease, is believed to be a consequence of repeated head injuries that cause the brain to collide with the skull, resulting in tissue damage. While the condition can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem, it typically manifests later in life as memory problems, mood changes, depression, and even dementia. Shockingly, individuals as young as 17 have been diagnosed with CTE, underscoring the severity of the issue.

A recent study conducted on 31 former rugby union players who donated their brains to research revealed a disturbing trend. Approximately two-thirds (68%) of the examined brains demonstrated signs of CTE, with the diagnosis prevalent among both amateur and elite players. The study also highlighted the relationship between a player’s rugby career length and their risk of developing CTE – each additional year of play increased the likelihood of CTE by 14%.

Interestingly, while 19 players had reported a history of concussions, it was discovered that concussions were equally common in athletes without CTE. This finding suggests that non-concussive head knocks accumulated throughout a player’s career contribute significantly to the brain changes associated with CTE. Consequently, there is an urgent need to not only reduce the number of head impacts in rugby, but also to minimize the force of those impacts.

Study author and neuropathologist at the Boston University CTE Center, Ann McKee, emphasizes the preventable nature of CTE and the necessity for immediate action. McKee argues that the number and intensity of head impacts must be reduced in rugby and other contact sports to protect players from developing CTE. This study, while limited in scope, adds to the growing body of evidence linking contact sports to CTE.

It is imperative to recognize that the risk of CTE affects both amateur players and professional athletes, as well as male and female sports stars. Numerous post-mortem studies on NFL players have demonstrated that over 90% of ex-NFL athletes have been diagnosed with CTE, painting a bleak picture of the consequences of participating in contact sports. Similarly shocking results have emerged from studies on soccer, Australian rules football, and now rugby players.

Although rugby union is known to have a higher risk of concussion compared to other contact sports, the prevalence of CTE in former rugby players has not been extensively studied. While this recent study did identify brain pathology in some amateur rugby players, the strongest evidence linking contact sports to neurodegeneration still predominantly stems from professional or elite players, cautions Tara Spires-Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh.

As evidence accumulates, it is becoming increasingly clear that repeated head impacts pose the greatest risk factor for CTE, regardless of whether or not concussion symptoms are present. Moreover, multiple “mild” head injuries have been shown to lead to memory problems and other cognitive deficits. A study of 631 deceased football players, regarded as the largest CTE study to date, discovered that the risk of developing CTE in NFL players was linked to both the number and intensity of head impacts, as well as the duration of their careers, rather than the number of diagnosed concussions.

These findings indicate that substantial changes to how football players practice and play could potentially reduce the risk of CTE. Dan Daneshvar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, emphasized the significance of these findings, suggesting that preventive measures must be implemented to safeguard the long-term brain health of athletes.

The alarming increase in CTE cases among rugby players serves as a harrowing reminder of the potential consequences of participating in contact sports. The study discussed here offers new insights into the prevalence of CTE in rugby and the concerning relationship between a player’s career length and their risk of developing the disease. Urgent action is needed to mitigate the risk, including reducing the number and force of head impacts in rugby and other contact sports. It is crucial for players, coaches, and sporting organizations to prioritize the long-term brain health of athletes and take decisive steps to protect them from the devastating impact of CTE.


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