IRUPA, the representative body of Irish professional rugby players, is hoping a mandatory concussion module will be in place for all players before the start of the season in the wake of a New Zealand study, which revealed 94% of former elite players had sustained at least one concussion.
The long-term study – the largest of its kind to focus on rugby union – pointed to a potential link between frequent concussion and brain damage, according to the project’s lead researcher.
The preliminary findings show that players who have suffered four or more concussions performed worse in tests measuring mental and physical co-ordination, motor speed and multi-tasking and rated their current health lower.
Those with one to three concussions had a worse result in one of the five balance tests.
“As a scientist, it’s irresponsible for people to say there are no long-term brain health issues,” said researcher Patria Hume of the study of 485 retired sports people, including 131 professionals, 281 amateurs and 73 players from non-contact sports such as cricket and hockey.
“All indications from the analysis we have done indicates there possibly are [long-term brain health issues] for the rugby players and for people who have been concussed more than four times.”
While further research is required, Hume added players need to be aware of the risks of long- term health effects.
That education is the priority for IRUPA, who consider concussion “a huge area of concern”. In Ireland, statistics from a survey of 204 professionals carried out last October by the players’ union showed that 28% of players had been concussed in the past year, with a further 7% unsure.
IRUPA communications manager and former Connacht captain Michael Swift added players are increasingly worried about concussion, with 80% concerned about it in a 2013 survey. An IRFU study from the previous season had shown that 95% of players who had played on with a concussion did so because they didn’t consider it a serious issue.
“From the peer-pressure side there has been a culture shift in recent years, whereby guys were almost encouraged to keep it quiet and not ‘let the side down’,” said Swift.
“There has been an ongoing push by ourselves to increase the education and to tell guys ‘games come and go but you only have one brain and you must protect it.’”
The return to play protocols have been a large improvement but remain a work in progress. Swift hopes to see “a synergised protocol amongst all teams” reinforced, as 17% of players did not follow the return to play protocols after a concussion last year.
“A lot of them [concussions] are hidden, so there’s more procedures that need to be put in place and that comes from a medical point of view, whereby they can do these tests. So the more this can be improved, that’s something we welcome.”
IRUPA will continue to prioritise concussion in annual surveys and are soon to launch a partnership with a charity associated with brain injuries, to spread awareness of the signs and symptoms of concussion to the wider playing public.
“We do need more empirical based studies to give us more of a definite picture of the situation we face,” added Swift.
“Professional rugby started in 96/97, so that first generation of players has now retired and in the next couple of years there will hopefully be more in-depth studies to try and give us a clearer understanding of where we stand.”
The New Zealand study was carried out by Auckland University of Technology, having been commissioned by World Rugby in 2012, and is in the process of being peer reviewed for publication.
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