Concussion has ascended towards the top of the sporting agenda in recent months, most notably with the new Premier League regulations pertaining to head injuries. The injury to Thibaut Courtois last weekend brought the issue into sharper focus still. Lucy Ryall comments on how rugby is dealing with the problem…

As the new BUCS season bursts onto the university sporting scene, old niggles and pains caused by injuries from last season have begun to make themselves known. The physio starts to get busier as second, third and fourth years students attempt to get a head start on the injuries they should have had treated last term.

I too am guilty of this, sliding into Krista’s office to tell her about shoulder injuries that happen over a year ago, both from different matches and only one having been officially diagnosed. And when she asks me why have I not had them looked at, I avoid eye contact and murmur something about not having time, and self-diagnosing being easier.

With injuries to my shoulders the lasting impact, whilst annoying and having an affect on my rugby playing, such injuries are not life altering. Concussions, however, can be. It is only in recent years that the seriousness of concussion in rugby has become well publicised, with the RFU recently launching a campaign to spread awareness. The medical community have known for many years how dangerous concussions are, but until recently, sporting stars have barely paid attention.

Muhammad Ali is a blazing example of the devastating consequences of repeating blows to the head, and yet we look upon him and claim that it was boxing that did that to him. Its common sense that getting knocks on your head week after week should not bode well for the future, and yet, after every bang, we stand up, brush ourselves off, swallow some paracetemol and carry on as if nothing happened.

Currently in rugby, there is a temporary law in place called Recognise and Remove. It is aimed to ensure the immediate removal of a player from the pitch once a concussion is noticed. If the diagnosis is unclear, then a temporary replacement may be used whilst the ‘concussed’ player is assessed. The ‘concussed’ player has 10 minutes (in real time) to be assessed and return to the field of play before no longer being allowed back on the pitch. Surprisingly this law, that requires medical assessment for a concussion before returning to the field of play, was only introduced as a trial in 2011.

After every bang, we stand up, brush our selves off, swallow some paracetemol and carry on as if nothing happened.

Whilst these are the laws according to the International Rugby Board, this does not ensure the awareness, treatment, and understanding of the seriousness of concussions in the sport at amateur level. Currently at University, whilst precautions are taken, concussions are generally treated with worrying flippancy. It is the norm to leave treatment down to the player suffering from the concussion.

Having spent a year in a North American University, I was able to experience first hand the newest wave of concern over the damaging consequences of concussions in contact sports. Prior to stepping onto a pitch, I was required to take a baseline test that used words and pictures to assess my uninjured brain. This would then be saved to be used again to judge my injury/recovery should I suffer a concussion. If I did sustain a concussion, after re-taking the baseline test (and hopefully passing) I was require to do a ‘back to play’ test, which involved testing my balance and reaction to strenuous fitness. I would then be subject to a non-contact training session, then a contact session, finally returning to full play.

 I know a handful of people who can no longer play rugby because of the results of too many concussions, leaving them with memory difficulties, trouble concentrating and sometimes debilitating headaches.

Whilst I was able to sum that up in few sentences, the reality is much different. Factoring in a short concussion recovery of 2 weeks, the baseline test took another week – if you passed it – then you spent the next week doing the physical tests, before a final week with the non-contact and contact session. For just a minor concussion you have spent 4 weeks out of play.

For me, the possibility of this time off seemed unreasonable with such a short season. Would my position on the team still be there when I came back? What about my fitness? Alarmingly, there wasn’t much concern for the health of my brain. The shocking reality of concussions has only begun to reveal itself to me, as I get older and meet people who have been playing rugby for much longer than myself. Now, at the age of 21, I know a handful of people who can no longer play rugby because of the results of too many concussions, leaving them with memory difficulties, trouble concentrating and sometimes debilitating headaches.

I still have many years left in this sport, and no doubt I will meet more people who have suffered from the after effects of a concussion, and most likely because proper care was not administered and sufficient time was not spent recovering.

Obviously, it is easy to read this and reason that rugby is a dangerous sport and should not be played. But that is not the point. More to the point is to raise the awareness of concussions and understand that time spent recovering is much better than rushing back in for the sake of 2 or 3 games. If the IRB’s treatment of concussions can be filtered down into university level rugby, and a stricter enforcement of treatment can be administered, then the amount of people open to suffering lasting affects will drop.

Lucy Ryall

Follow Lucy on Twitter: @lucyvictoria44

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