Head injury in sports – can it be prevented?

Rugby players on the pitch

Concussion and head injuries in sports is a topic which has attracted controversy and debate with a past medical conference in Berlin on “sport related concussions” bringing together experts from around the world.

Current rules “not fit for purpose”

In 2016, rugby’s governing body, World Rugby, announced a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach to reckless conduct leading to head injuries to players but last year the group’s Independent Concussion Advisory Group described the game’s current approach in this area as ‘not fit for purpose’ with an ‘unacceptably high’ number of top level players sustaining concussion injuries.   

The family of American Football player Aaron Hernandez wanted to donate his brain to science and for players to be examined for signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease of the brain, while there have been calls for an independent review of how on-field head injuries in football in the UK are treated. 

Players at risk at all levels

The risk of concussion and more serious head injuries isn’t present only in elite and professional level sport. April 2017 saw the tragic death of Lily Partridge, 22 years old, after a minor collision with another player during a Rugby match.

‘Just part of the game’?’

Injuries, including those to the head, have often been seen as ‘just part of the game’ in many sports but we now have an understanding of the risks that can arise from taking part in sport without access to proper training or medical support. 

Many sports will always involve physical contact but it is important to raise awareness of safety and provide players, coaches, volunteers and everyone involved at all levels of sport with the awareness and information they need to help make sure everyone can enjoy playing sports safely.

What is a concussion?

A concussion is a form of minor traumatic brain injury which occurs when a blow or impact to the head causes a sudden disruption to the part of the brain known as the reticular activating system (the part of your brain that regulates your sense of awareness and consciousness).

As soon as a player is diagnosed with a concussion, they should stop playing the game, rest and seek appropriate medication. Otherwise, they risk suffering further trauma.

How do you know someone has a concussion?

It is important to know the symptoms of a concussion so they are treated correctly. Symptoms can be subtle but most commonly, they include:

• Headache
• nausea
• loss of memory
• confusion

Most mild symptoms of concussion can be self treated, such as taking paracetamol to relieve headaches.

However, it is important to look out for more serious symptoms such as unconsciousness, continued confusion, speech problems, balance problems and problems with eyesight. If you detect these, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

What is Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)?

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain caused by repetitive brain trauma. 

The brain trauma can cause a build-up of an abnormal type of protein which slowly kills brain cells. Even after any trauma has ended, the brain continues to deteriorate.

Previously, it was commonly known as “punch drunk syndrome” and is associated with athletes and military veterans.

How do you know someone has Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)?

A person suffering from CTE will often display aggression, confusion, memory loss, paranoia and depression. Eventually, they can start to experience symptoms of progressive dementia.

Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after death though brain tissue analysis and there is no treatment for CTE at the moment.

The current advice is to prevent head injury as far as possible.

Does this mean I should avoid taking part in sports?

Unless you have suffered a brain injury previously, most doctors are likely to advise that the health benefits of regularly taking part in sports outweigh any potential risks associated with concussion. 

The priority is to help everyone play their part in making sport competitive, fun, enjoyable - and safe.

Head Injury Information Days sponsored by Digby Brown

Every year, we hold Head Injury Information Days across Scotland. This is a free information event bringing together people living with a brain injury, their families and carers as well as professionals working in the field and a wide range of organisations who can provide support.

This year, we are supporting two Head Injury Information Days, one in Glasgow at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on Wednesday 16th May and another in Edinburgh at Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor on Wednesday 23rd May.

Anyone is welcome to come along.