Water polo injuries: how frequent are head injuries and which positions are most vulnerable?

An image to illustrate water polo
© iStock/EcoPic

The University of California Irvine has analysed water polo injuries, to answer the questions of how frequent head injuries are in the sport, and which positions are the most vulnerable to them.

The tracked the water polo injuries of several dozen male collegiate water polo players over three seasons. During the study, the players wore caps embedded with electronic sensors to track the injuries.

The study showed that every participant was hit in the head by either balls or rival players. Some participants also had worse injuries.

Water polo: the risk of head injuries

The study co-author James Hicks, professor and chair of UCI’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, explained: “For years, water polo’s head trauma risks have been downplayed or overshadowed by football-related brain injuries. Our data quantifies the extent of the problem and sets the stage for additional research and possible rule changes or protective gear to improve water polo safety.”

What are the most vulnerable positions?

The most unsafe position is offensive centre, according to the study. The University of California Irvine said: “On average, those players endured nearly seven blows to the skull per game, which amounted to 37 percent of all head impacts recorded.”

The more likely players to sustain water polo injuries are the ones who play in offensive positions. The defensive and transition positions were less likely to sustain injuries.
The swimmers attacking from the left side of the goal suffered more head hits than players on the right.

The motivation for studying water polo head injuries

Hicks added: “People who’ve never seen a game may not realize how physical it is,” he said. “Head-butts and elbows. Balls flying up to 50 mph. I’ve witnessed players get dragged out of the pool in a daze after a blow to the head, and I’ve sat in an emergency room while my kid received stitches from being struck in the face. I began to wonder what the concussion rate was.”

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