It's only in recent years that issue of concussive injuries in sports is getting the attention it deserves as more and more medical experts highlight the danger of concussion in high impact sports such as rugby, American football and even soccer. There have already been a number of high-profile cases in the professional world of sport, but perhaps more worryingly, is the number of concussions occurring in amateur games, many of which go unreported, according to consultant neuropathologist, Dr Willie Stewart. He says:
'The biggest issue that faces concussion is the remarkable under-reporting of injury. We know that for every concussion that is recognised there's another five that are missed.'
At the amateur level, there certainly isn't the support that there is in the professional arena. And, crucially, there isn't enough awareness of how easily these injuries can happen and the impact they can have on the lives of those who suffer them. All of which has led to the claim by Prof Alison Pollock from Queen Mary University in London that rugby is "too dangerous to be included in school sports programs". Indeed, American authorities have gone further and banned heading the ball in soccer games for children aged ten and under.
Recognising a Concussion
A concussion is a serious injury to the brain that can occur with or without loss of consciousness. It can be fatal, but most individuals recover given adequate rest. It can occur when a forced rotation of the head strains the nerve fibres that connect different parts of the brain so that they become disconnected. So strikes to the neck can be just as damaging as those to the head.
Since there may be no visible injury, it isn't always clear that a concussion has occurred so it's important to be able to recognise the signs, as an undiagnosed concussion can lead to further injury later in the game - something that's been termed as 'second impact syndrome' by brain injury organisation, Headway. This has led many professional sports teams to implement a set of guidelines to recognise and react to possible concussive injuries. However, there is still a big lack of awareness at the amateur level.
So it's good that Sportscotland, the national agency for sport, has developed their own comprehensive guide for recognising and avoiding concussive injuries. The organisation's mantra is 'if in doubt, sit them out'. Things to look out for include unsteadiness, a dazed look, confusion and a player that seems to be holding his or her head. More obvious signs include unconsciousness or seizures. Players may experience dizziness, headache and memory disturbance. If these are reported then that's a good sign that they should be immediately removed from play.
Preventing Concussive Injury
All considered, there are few worse injuries that can happen on the playing field than a concussion, especially if it isn't the player's first injury. Some research now indicates that those who have experienced several concussive injuries may experience long-term brain problems.
However, there is action that can be taken to prevent concussions occurring in the first place, such as wearing protective headgear, better training, and making sure that rules of play related to safety are enforced effectively.
Sports concussion neuropsychologist, Rosemarie Scolaro Moser says:
'A big consideration in all high-risk sports is that at whatever age the youth transitions to contact or collision, whether 12, 14, 16, or 18 years of age, youth athletes will need to be trained to engage in safe, proper contact.'
If you're going to be playing a lot, it's certainly a good idea to take out an LPA, or Lasting Power of Attorney. That way, should the unthinkable happen, such as severe brain damage or mental incapacitation, you have the peace of mind of knowing that your affairs are in order and your family won't be left wondering who has to manage your finances, as well as other crucial matters. At its simplest, a Lasting Power of Attorney is a formal document by which a person grants authority to other people to act on their behalf should they become incapacitated. Without it, the process to appoint someone can be lengthy, expensive and a huge source of stress for family members.
In the meantime, everyone involved in impact sport needs to do their part to ensure sports are played as safely as they can be, and when risks are involved, to be aware, and mitigate them to the greatest extent possible.