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Close-up image of two rugby-playing boys lightheartedly touching heads.

Close-up image of two rugby-playing boys lightheartedly touching heads.
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Sports concussion linked to long-term brain injury

Blog post | 27 Feb 2018

Australian rugby players are among the toughest in the world – and league fans, especially, love to watch a tough game. 

So are the hard hits and full-body contact involved really that bad for you? Is a little concussion that big a price to pay? 

The answer is becoming clearer, according to a recent study. The impact of repeated concussions can damage brain function later in life. 

La Trobe University concussion expert, Dr Alan Pearce, looked at the cognitive function of 25 retired NRL (league) players who experienced on-field concussions during their playing days, and compared them with 25 men of a similar age (40 to 65) with no history of concussion or brain injury.

The players had experienced an average of 8.5 concussions over time (where they missed competing the following week), and in the study, they performed 40% to 50% worse on cognitive tests than the non-players. The rugby league group were also 11% slower in their reaction times. 

With more women and girls taking up contact sports, the number of players exposed to the risks of knocks to the head has grown even greater

Even if you’re not in the ‘big leagues’, there’s a host of contact and non-contact sports that commonly result in men and women getting concussed. As well as rugby league, if you or your child is playing ball sports such as Australian Rules, rugby union, soccer or cricket, you need to be aware of the danger of head injury. People who do boxing, skateboarding, horse riding, cycling or skiing also need to be aware of the risk of concussion. You should get advice on the right head protection for your sport to avoid concussion. 

The signs and symptoms of concussion

If you, one of your team-mates or your child are unlucky enough to receive a blow to the head, it’s vital that you recognise the symptoms and take action to avoid longer-term injury. Watch out for what may be signs and symptoms of concussion, such as: 

  • headache
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • problems with balance
  • problems with attention
  • loss of consciousness
  • temporary memory loss. 

If someone has experienced concussion, they need to see a doctor as soon as possible. They may be sent for a CT scan of their head. Some people with concussion will be kept in hospital for observation for several hours. It’s also very important that anyone who has had concussion stays with other people for at least 24 hours.

When to seek more help

If the health of the person deterioriates after a concussion, go to the nearest hospital or doctor immediately, or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Take action if there are signs or symptoms such as: 

  • fainting or drowsiness, or the person can’t wake up
  • behaving strangely, saying things that do not make sense
  • a constant severe headache or a headache that gets worse
  • vomiting or throwing up more than twice
  • not remembering new events, or recognising people or places
  • passing out, experiencing a ‘blackout’ or having a seizure
  • not being able to move parts of the body, or clumsiness
  • blurred vision or slurred speech
  • continual fluid loss or bleeding from the ear or nose

People who have been concussed need physical and mental rest. Children will need to stay home from school and not use a computer or play video games. Return to school or work might need to be gradual.

You can use the HeadCheck app, developed by Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, to help you recognise the signs of concussion in children and adolescents. People who have had concussion should not expect to play sport until they have made a full recovery.

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