It is no secret that we are passionate about our sport – but is our passion for contact sports putting us at risk?
Concussion is the most common head injury in sport. It occurs when a player receives an impact to the head or body that causes the brain to shake inside the skull. Recent studies, particularly in the United States, have established persuasive links between repeated head trauma, such as concussion and the early onset of cognitive issues such Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which was once known as being punch drunk. Another study of retired French rugby players reported a “significantly greater number of concussions and recurrent concussions than other retired sportsmen”. It also found that retired rugby players with recurrent concussions were more likely to suffer from major depressive disorders. There are now links being made between head trauma and dementia. With big risks like this its a wonder why we let anyone run out on the field at all!
Rugby turned professional in 1996 but the sport’s rulers did not start getting smart about concussion until about 2011. Even now New Zealand Rugby Players’ Association chief Rob Nichol says there is too big a discrepancy between various rugby environments in their attitude towards concussion.
John Williams, who played two years for the Junior ABs and Waikato in the late-70s and early 80s has is the first New Zealand rugby player to publicly commit his brain to science after being told he is living with the degenerative brain disease CTE.”It’s very important to me. I want to do something to help,” Williams said. “There will be a lot of old rugby players sitting around like me not really sure what’s going on with them and don’t know why they’re doing silly things. I hope that by sharing my story some of them will not be embarrassed to seek help like I was for so long.”
It isn’t only Rugby players who have had concerns about repeated head injuries. Former England captain Alan Shearer fears he may be at risk of dementia due to heading footballs during his playing days.
The 47-year-old is the Premier League’s record scorer with 260 goals and enjoyed an 18-year career with Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and hometown club Newcastle United. “For every goal I scored with a header during a game, I must have practiced it 1000 times in training,” Shearer told the Daily Mirror. “That must put me at risk if there is a link. I have got a terrible memory. I don’t know if that is because I don’t listen but I have got a poor memory. When you play football as a professional you expect in later life you are going to have problems with your knees, your ankles or your back like I have. But never did I think playing football could be linked to having a brain disease.”
Changing the perception
Concussion is a serious issue that effects players from grassroots to professionals.
There is increasing concern that many retired rugby players are living with the distorting effects of concussions suffered during their careers. The link between dementia and head trauma like that suffered by rugby players is a potential powderkeg for rugby administrators. There have been no claims lodged with the Accident Compensation Corporation, but a spokeswoman acknowledged that with greater understanding and awareness of the dangers of concussion it is likely “that we will in the future”.
Shearer believes more research needs to be carried out and greater support for ex-players with dementia should be on offer. “The authorities have been very reluctant to find out any answers,” he said. “They have swept it under the carpet, which is not good enough. Football must look after old players with dementia and put an end to this sense that once you are done playing, you can be put on the scrap heap. It’s a tough game, it’s a brilliant game but we have to make sure it’s not a killer game.”
ACC is increasing its funding for the “Rugby Smart” programme, which aims to reduce the number and severity of injuries in the sport from $300,000 to about 1.75m a year. This includes a focus on the treatment of concussion.
Officially players should not return to sport until symptom free AND medically cleared. World Rugby’s mandatory stand down period is for a minimum 3 weeks (23 days for players aged 19 and under). If a player returns too soon, while symptoms are still present, it will slow recovery and put them at risk of further concussions.