HUNDREDS of Hunter sports players are suspected of suffering concussion each year – a condition that medical experts have declared as a brain injury.
Doctors and former players are concerned that repeated concussions can cause brain damage, dementia, premature death, memory loss, Parkinson’s disease and mental decline.
Research is being done into concussion in Newcastle – involving the Knights and local footballers – with the aim of improving understanding, treatment and management of the injury.
Dr Andrew Gardner, a Newcastle-based clinical neuropsychologist, aims to collect data on concussion incidents in Newcastle in every sport, including adults, teens and children.
Sports known for concussion incidents include rugby league, rugby union, AFL, soccer, boxing, hockey, equestrian, surfing, skateboarding, cycling and baseball.
Dr Gardner said there were potentially hundreds of concussions each year from playing sport in the Hunter alone.
He is working with Newcastle’s Easts Rugby Club to improve management of concussion injuries.
The club’s president, Andrew Hill, said this was an example of how far the club was willing to go to make sure it looked after players ‘‘regardless of age or ability’’.
Dr Gardner was also examining possible long-term consequences of concussion in professional rugby league players, including current and former Knights players.
He said there had been a culture in football codes of ‘‘wearing your concussion as a badge of honour’’.
But education and media attention on the subject were changing this attitude, he said.
The football codes were ‘‘doing a tremendous job, but they could probably continue to improve that’’.
He described concussion as ‘‘mild traumatic brain injuries which cause the connections between brain cells to stretch or break’’.
‘‘It does heal and we know it mends itself, but players shouldn’t stay out there while they’ve got problems,’’ he said.
A consensus statement from scientists at the International Conference on Concussion in Sport found ‘‘concussion is a brain injury’’.
Dr Gardner said the most important thing in the initial stages of concussion was for players and athletes to be removed from play.
They must not return to play ‘‘while they’re still symptomatic’’.
The initial symptoms of concussion are difficulty with balance, headache, dizziness, confusion, disorientation and memory disturbance.
The player should be referred to a medical professional to get clearance to play again, Dr Gardner said.
Former rugby league player Ian Roberts recently predicted the possible ‘‘beginning of the end of contact sport’’ after being diagnosed with brain damage from ‘‘being knocked out up to a dozen times in his playing career’’.
Some medical experts, including Hunter Medical Research Institute Professor Chris Levi, had sought to avoid ‘‘hype’’ over concussion’s effects in Australian codes.
They aim to clarify uncertainty with further research.
Dr Gardner said ‘‘the potential long-term consequences’’ of concussion were not known, but ‘‘there’s a lot of reports in the literature and media that it could lead to dementia’’.
Clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston’s University School of Medicine, Dr Robert Cantu, and his colleague Dr Ann McKee have called for immediate action to reduce head trauma in sports.
Dr McKee said last year it was ‘‘now irresponsible to justify inaction by requesting a level of scientific proof that will take decades to acquire’’.
In the United States, 5000 former NFL players sued the league in a class-action and won uncapped compensation, which is expected to reach more than $1billion.
The case aired accusations that the NFL covered up the dangers of repeated hits to the head.
Dozens of former players were found to have ‘‘chronic traumatic encephalopathy’’, a degenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s. The Sports Legacy Institute called recently in the US for soccer players not to head the ball before high-school age because of concussion concerns.
1. No activity
2. Light aerobic exercise
3. Sports-specific exercise
4. Non-contact training drills
5. Full-contact practice
6. Return to play
Source: Newcastle-based clinical neuropsychologist Dr Andrew Gardner