Water polo isn’t typically thought of when people think of contact sports with high risk of injury, but those who participate in the sport will be quick to tell you just how rough the sport can be. Goalies, in particular, know they risk hits to the head that could trigger a concussion any time they get in the water.
New research from UC Irvine supports the idea that water polo can be particularly dangerous for concussions. The study, published recently in Frontiers in Neurology shows that more than a third of water polo players experienced a concussion during practice or competition and that goalies are at even higher risk for brain injury.
For the study, Dr. Steven L. Small and James Hicks from the Department of Neurology and UCI’s Exercise Medicine & Sports Sciences Initiative polled over 44,000 USA Water Polo members about their history of concussions, head impacts, and symptoms typically characteristic of brain injuries.
According to the results of the survey, approximately 36% of players reported experiencing at least one concussion related to the sport, with an average of 2.14 concussions per person.
While those rates are enough to raise concern, the findings also showed that goalies were significantly more likely to experience brain injuries. Approximately 47% said they had experienced at least one concussion, with the majority occurring during practice rather than competition.
Concussion rates were also high for college students. Among athletes who competed up to the high school level, approximately 31% had experienced a brain injury. In comparison, 51% of those who had played through college experienced concussions.
“These numbers suggest that playing water polo carries a significant risk of concussion,” said Small, professor and chair of neurology at UCI. “Our results speak to the need for systematic concussion reporting in water polo. Particularly important is reporting for individuals at the college level, who have the highest prevalence of concussion.”
In response to the results showing goalies were at particular risk, Small suggested making players in that position wear protective headgear even during practice. He also noted that adding protective headgear would have no adverse effects on the sport.
“We found that concussions are not uncommon in water polo and that level of play, field position and gender are critical factors in determining the risk of concussion in the sport,” said Hicks, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at UCI and director of the Exercise Medicine & Sport Sciences Initiative. “As the first epidemiological examination of head trauma in water polo, our study calls attention to the need for further research.”
The study had several limitations, but it raises questions about the safety of water polo around the world. Further research is needed to establish if these brain injury rates are consistent in the U.S. and abroad.