At first glance, American football and rugby appear to be similar sports, but what are the health implications of playing them?
The National Football League (NFL) championship, the Super Bowl, will be held on the 7th February 20161. The Super Bowl is usually the most-watched American TV broadcast of the year2, and the day is an unofficial US national holiday. On the 6th February, across the pond in Europe, France and Italy will play the first match of the Rugby Union Six Nations.
Both sports are equally popular and have wide grass-roots participation, so we’re taking a look at the health benefits and possible implications for players and their families.
American football is the national sport in the USA. The Super Bowl is the final match between the last undefeated team in the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference. The NFL is the most valuable sports league in the world, with an average team worth of $1.17 billion2.
In the UK, there are two forms of professional rugby: Rugby League and Rugby Union. Both sports are played by clubs from all around the country, but have slightly different sets of rules. The England rugby team plays internationally in the Six Nations and World Cup Championships.
Many school and university American football teams in the US enjoy a level of fame and notoriety that is unmatched in the UK. American football is more of a niche sport in the UK, where rugby is played widely in schools, clubs and universities.
As with any sport that encourages children and adults to exercise more, American football and rugby bring many health benefits. Over 170,000 people play rugby in the UK at least once a week to keep fit and maintain a healthy weight5. American football plays the same role in the US, and it is becoming increasingly popular in UK universities in particular.
Players of both sports have to be strong and fast. Playing rugby or American football at any level helps build muscle strength in the legs and upper body. The NHS recommends that adults aged 19-64 do strength exercises two days a week and children and young adults do strength exercises three days a week8
. Many people overlook this aspect of physical exercise, and rugby and American football provide the ideal means of building muscle strength in a social environment.
Both sports are mentally demanding, and the training required to compete is particularly good for building resilience. Being part of a team gives people a sense of purpose and belonging that is good for stress relief and positive mental health7.
Fast paced and often physically aggressive, rugby and American football are contact sports and players run the risk of injury. This is the case at both amateur and professional levels, and governing bodies have brought in increasingly stringent regulations to protect participants and avoid serious and lasting injuries.
American football players wear protective gear on their chests, shoulders and upper legs, along with a helmet and mouth guard. In contrast, rugby players are only allowed to wear modest padding and are only required to wear a mouth guard for protection1. This difference means that American football players often enter tackles with more force, and can attack head-first, whereas rugby players take more force on their shoulders.
In the UK, injuries sustained in amateur rugby are rare but often serious. Head injuries are the most common, and coaches and teachers are trained to recognise the signs of concussion with off-field cognitive tests3. Around 1,200 professional rugby players around the world sustain head injuries every year, and around two thirds of these injuries are concussion or brain injuries6.
Rugby players are also at risk of spinal injuries, particularly if they are involved in the scrum on a regular basis. There have been calls by senior doctors to remove the contact element of the sport in schools, as there is a much greater incidence of paralysis in teenagers than adults4
Comparatively, American football appears to be safer. There were just 228 diagnosed concussions during the 2013 season, at both games and practices6. The disparity between the two numbers is partly due to the greater number of professional rugby players than professional American football players.
At BMI Healthcare, we provide access to specialist consultants and surgeons for orthopaedic surgery and physiotherapists. Our Sports Injury Clinics are designed to offer prompt assessment, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation to help players recover from any sports injuries and return to fitness.
To book your consultation call us on 0800 101 0337.