A new study by University of California, Irvine researchers maps out the frequency of head injuries among water polo athletes and reveals which positions are the most vulnerable.

The reportedly first-of-its-kind report, which tracked several dozen male collegiate water polo players over three seasons, was published recently in PLOS One.

“For years, water polo’s head trauma risks have been downplayed or overshadowed by football-related brain injuries,” says study co-author James Hicks, professor and chair of UCI’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, in a media release.

“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.”

During the study, players wore caps embedded with electronic sensors. Over time, every participant got bopped in the head by balls or rival players, but some fared worse — occasionally far worse — than others.

Offensive players were more likely to get battered than defensive and transition positions (60% versus 23% and 17%, respectively). And swimmers attacking from the left side of the goal suffered more head hits than players on the right, possibly because right-handed athletes commonly throw shots from the left zone, so there’s more activity in that area, researchers suggest in the release.

The most unsafe position, according to the study, was offensive center. On average, those players endured nearly seven blows to the skull per game, which amounted to 37% of all head impacts recorded by UCI scientists. In contrast, the second-most vulnerable position, defensive center, averaged two head strikes per game, the study found.

Overall, researchers counted an average of 18 head hits per game. Although no concussions were diagnosed, the force of the blows was “similar to those observed in collegiate soccer, another sport that is commonly studied for the risks associated with repeated head impact exposure,” Hicks comments.

In future research, UCI researchers are preparing a manuscript that details how water polo head shots affect brain function.

[Source(s): University of California – Irvine, Science Daily]