Sports concussion danger revealed

20 December 2013

'Toughing it out' may be the traditional approach, but, in the case of concussion, it is the surest way to long-term damage.

'Toughing it out' may be the traditional approach to a sports injury, but, in the case of concussion, it is the surest way to long-term damage.

Serious concussion experienced on the sporting field can potentially have long-term effects on athletes’ brains, a new Deakin study has found.

Researcher and neuroscientist, Dr Alan Pearce, from Deakin’s School of Psychology, investigated the brain function of 40 retired Australian rules footballers (20 elite and 20 amateur) who had all suffered more than two serious concussion incidents on the field. These involved loss of consciousness and disorientation.

The study found a reduction in fine motor control, slower reaction times and abnormal changes in brain function in the research cohort, as compared to people the same age who had never played contact sport. This research marks the first time Australian sportspeople have been studied in this way.

The study found that affected players can experience difficulties in day-to-day life, particularly with fine motor skills, such as when putting keys in a door, for instance. As well as affecting quality of life, slowed reaction time could have serious consequences, such as when driving a car, for instance.

The research has far reaching implications for all sportspeople who suffer repeat incidences of concussion, and - all the more worrying - symptoms are unlikely to appear for many years.

“After the acute phase, things 'settle down' and symptoms may not appear for 20 or more years,” said Dr Pearce.

Of further concern, the research has found that the motor abnormalities that are the first long-term affects to appear can precede more serious behavioural, language and cognitive problems. However, on the positive side, these can be prevented, or slow down progression of more serious issues, if appropriate rehabilitation is provided.

While footballers were studied, participants in various sports are at risk. Riskier sports include boxing, equestrian events, horse racing, netball, roller sports, such as speed skating or roller derby, soccer and rugby.

“Of course, we don’t want to put people off playing sport, with all its many benefits,” Dr Pearce said. “We know that we can reduce the likelihood of this problem by improving safety practices and treatment protocols.”

In order to minimise the risk of long-term damage, Dr Pearce recommends that all clubs should establish strict protocols for serious concussion incidents, including mandatory rest periods and monitoring after the event.

“It is important that coaches and teachers are aware of the potential for long-term damage from serious concussion,” he said. “They can then train the sportspeople how to tackle properly, for instance. Identifying concussion immediately, and understanding what to do after the incident, including having rest and proper medical evaluation, is also crucial.” 

Dr Pearce urges people who have experienced repeat concussions to 'get checked out', particularly if they feel that they are forgetting more things than usual, or feeling out of the ordinary.

Dr Alan Pearce, from Deakin's School of Psychology Dr Alan Pearce, from Deakin's School of Psychology.

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