Water polo a big concussion risk, according to UC Irvine survey report

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While it hasn't gained the same notoriety for head injuries as football or soccer, water polo also puts players at risk of concussions, a new survey suggests.

Thirty-six percent of water polo players responding to a UC Irvine survey report getting at least one concussion while playing the sport, with an average of more than two concussions per person. 

The survey, published online in Frontiers in Neurology, is significant because "to the best of our knowledge, there are no published data reporting incidence or prevalence of concussion or head impacts in water polo at any level of the sport," according to the UC Irvine researchers.

More than 1,500 USA Water Polo members responded to the survey.

People playing at the masters club level reported more concussions than high school players, indicating that the average number of concussions increases with competition level and number of years played.

The survey also suggests that goalies are at increased risk for head injuries: About 47 percent of goalies responding to the survey reported at least one concussion, with an average of nearly 2.5 per person.

Dr. James Hicks, a physiologist and one of the survey's authors, wasn't surprised that goalies are especially hard hit. As the father of three sons who played water polo, he says he's familiar with the sport's physicality.

"A collegiate water polo player can shoot the ball at anywhere from about 35 to 45 miles per hour, and that ball weighs about 480 grams," Hicks explains. "If it hits a person right in the head, it has a significant impact force to it."

The vast majority of goalies report that their head injuries come from the ball, rather than player contact, and occur more frequently during practice. For that reason, the researchers recommend that goalies be allowed to wear stronger headgear during practice.

In a statement emailed to KPCC, NCAA spokeswoman Gail Dent says there are no ongoing discussions about additional head gear requirements.

The study has limitations: It relies on players' memories and their subjective definitions of concussion.

The researchers call on the NCAA to track all head injuries in water polo, noting that it's one of the only NCAA-sanctioned sports without an injury database.

"The NCAA should be requiring all Division I, II and III teams to report injuries systematically up to the NCAA - not on a volunteer basis, but make it a requirement," Hicks says.

The NCAA began tracking water polo concussions in 2012, but only a handful of teams have supplied data and the results haven’t been made public, according to the researchers. Dent of the NCAA says the data may not reflect what is actually occurring in the sport, since so few NCAA schools sponsor water polo teams.