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Protecting against sport-related concussions

14 Jul 2022

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Protecting against sport-related concussions

Staying safe on the field should be a top priority for anyone who plays sport. In fact, sport-related concussions make up 20% of all concussions in New Zealand. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional athlete or a junior player; nobody is immune to injury and it’s essential to know the signs and symptoms to look out for.

Do you know how concussions occur?

A concussion is mild traumatic brain injury, resulting from a direct hit to the head or a blow to the body. You can sustain a concussion without being knocked out or hit in the head directly.

If the head is forced to move too quickly or to stop suddenly, especially because of an impact, the brain can twist and bounce in the skull. This damages brain tissue and stretches the cells, making them release chemicals that change how the brain functions. A concussion can affect things like attention and concentration, cognitive processing (thinking and understanding), verbal fluency (speech), learning and memory.

Treatment is crucial in the first 24 hours to avoid further damage. It’s not always clear immediately either, as symptoms can take up to 48 hours to appear. So any player who sustains a knock to the head and gets up straight away still needs to be monitored for developing symptoms.

Always keep an eye out for these symptoms

If you or your children play sport, it’s essential to know how to identify a potential concussion, so you can keep everyone on the field safe.

Here’s what to look out for:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Convulsions
  • Stiff posturing
  • Balance issues
  • Disorientation
  • Being clearly dazed or confused
  • Definite behavioural changes
  • Abnormal eye movements or double vision
  • Bad or worsening headaches
  • Neck pain
  • Fatigue

One of the most important signs to look for is a subtle one — changes in behaviour. Does the player seem like their normal self? If you’re in any doubt, it’s safer to take the player off the field. The longer they stay playing after a concussion, the greater the chances they’ll experience prolonged symptoms.

Seek medical attention if you’ve noticed symptoms

If you or another player are suspected of having sustained a concussion, the most important thing is urgent medical attention. All potential injuries need to be assessed by a doctor within 24-to-48 hours. After a concussion, monitor symptoms and reduce activity that makes those symptoms worse, and seek urgent medical attention if they do worsen.

Recovering from a concussion

Injured players should get lots of rest and sleep, limit their screen use and avoid being alone. Anyone with a concussion should stay clear of processed sugary foods, alcohol, smoking, driving and even work and study until a doctor has given them the all clear.

NZ Rugby also has minimum stand down periods (three weeks) that must be observed before returning to the rugby field. For players under 19 years it’s 23 days and for those 19 years and older, it’s 21 days.

All NZ Rugby players must follow the Graduated Return to Play (GRTP) programme, which involves the gradual introduction of light activity first, before moving on to drills and ball handling, and later non-contact and contact training. Returning to play is the final step.

Staying safe on the field

Unfortunately, it’s not possible to totally prevent a concussion, but there are things players can do to protect themselves against a possible concussion injury. Professional rugby teams like the Blues are carefully trained in their tackle technique and shown how to adjust their style of play for better safety.

If you or your child have had a concussion in the past, you can also be more vulnerable to receiving a recurring injury, so it’s something to be aware of when you take the field.

Here are some safety checks you can follow for better protection:

  • Strengthen your neck to help reduce movement and whipping movements.
  • Learn correct tackling techniques.
  • Wear a properly fitted mouthguard to help absorb shock and stabilise the head and neck, reducing the likelihood of oral injuries.
  • Wear custom fitted headgear. While this does not protect against concussion, it can help prevent soft tissues injuries (such as cuts to the scalp and ears). This is especially important for kids.

Safety measures can be especially important for children and adolescents, as they’re more likely to sustain a concussion and to have a longer recovery period than an adult.

For more information on concussions, how to spot them and the recovery process, watch the video above video from nib and the Blues and hear from the pros and experts on how they manage concussions on and off the field.