BBC News carried a report earlier this month by their Health Editor, Hugh Pym, about how a “pitch side scan” is being tried out by 3 rugby union clubs to monitor players’ brain health. It is hoped that by using the new device, brain patterns can be spotted which suggest concussion, which is a big issue for all sports at the moment, both at professional and amateur levels, grassroots or elite.
If nothing else, it can give a ”baseline” reading, so if that player is injured again in the future, there will be a comparison scan available to check for any changes.
The device is called a “Wavi” device and works by sensors being placed on the scalp to measure electrical activity in the brain.
The not-for-profit organisation Love of the Game is backing the initiative. Their President is former English rugby union player Simon Shaw and their chairman is Laurence Geller, the ministerial adviser appointed by government to examine concussion in sport.
The government is aiming to improve concussion protocols and to have standardised UK rules for all contact sports. There has been a great deal of publicity about the risks of brain injury and long- term brain deterioration conditions such as early-onset dementia arising out of repetitive heading the ball in football, but also from physical contacts and collisions in both rugby and football. Racing and horse-riding also carry a large risk of concussion and head injuries.
Only today (3 May 2022), the BBC reported the finding that the death of former Welsh footballer Keith Pontin was due to dementia brought on by repeated trauma to his head:
Former England rugby player Steve Thompson, part of the World Cup-winning team in 2003 is another such victim. He says he no longer remembers the 2003 victory because of early onset dementia – caused, he believes, by head injuries in his playing career.
He is part of a group taking legal action against the rugby authorities.
Strangely, research suggests the issue may be more acute for women than men, with a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open in April 2021 reporting the risk of sport-related concussion in adolescent girls playing football was nearly twice that of adolescent boys.
Mr Geller says everyone needs to be aware of the issue and the need for up- to- date guidelines:
“The teachers, the coaches, the referees at junior levels – everybody has to understand it – going down to the parents, doctors and the GPs.”
There is also a need to try to PREVENT these issues in future. Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, said that dementia was a real problem in sports, not only for those affected, but their families as well.
“Changes in the brain start 10-20 years before symptoms develop, so.…it is crucial to find early warning signs for dementia – enabling people to get the care and support they need.”
Steve Thompson’s fellow World Cup colleague, Ben Kay, along with other former players, has regular scans as part of the PREVENT study, led by the University of Edinburgh, funded by the Alzheimer’s Society.
It is not just the injuries themselves that are of concern, but recovery times as well. Horse riders frequently used to fall, get back on the horse and carry on riding and competing. It was almost a “badge of honour” that you did so! But we now know that concussion can carry on far longer than we thought and it is essential that the concussion is identified early and the rider advised on recovery times.
There are several research initiatives going on, but as has been commented on, the real challenge is to translate the research findings into active prevention measures and proper diagnosis and treatments.