New Research Sheds Light on The Concussion Risks of Water Polo

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A new study by Cecchi et al. published in PLOS-One, explores head impact risks in water polo. Water polo is a full contact water sport where grappling is part of the strategy; it has a high potential for head injury and concussion. Researchers found that the sport poses a head impact risk to high-level collegiate players and that risks differ by positions.

This quantitative study measured head velocity by having players wear caps with integrated head impact sensors during games and practice. The sensor data allowed researchers at UCI to analyze head impact data to see which positions and in what circumstances head impacts were most common and severe. This is the first ever quantitative study into head impacts in water polo.

It was found that the center positions had the highest risk, with 37% of the head impacts coming in this position; the center positions are where most of the wrestling (under and above water) and scoring occurs.

The majority (59.9%) of the head impacts occurred while the injured player was on offense. However, the velocity of the impacts was not statistically different by position or circumstance, meaning that although centers receive more impacts than other positions, those impacts are not necessarily any more severe than impacts to players at other positions. Additionally, although goalies would seem to be at risk for more impacts due to their blocking position, they were not observed to be at higher risk for a head injury than outfield players in either games or practice.

During the three-year study period  - while researchers observed head impacts in practices and games - there were no recorded concussions.

Water polo is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, while football has seen a decrease in participation. More research is needed into how concussions are diagnosed and treated in water polo, but this study is a good first step.

Understanding the concussion risks for water polo allows researchers, parents, and participants to make better-informed decisions about participation, and gives USA Water Polo the opportunity to improve improve the health and safety of players through re-evaluating rules and regulations in light of new data.