Has the Stigma Around Concussion in Rugby Changed?

The City’s John McAuliffe discusses concussion in rugby, and if the conversation around this seemingly harmless injury has changed.

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By John McAuliffe

Concussions are one of the most common injuries in high contact sports such as rugby.

Concussions can occur where an individual experiences even a minor injury to the head. The cause of concussions aren’t just when the head strikes another object. It can also be caused by a rapid change of movement, not giving the skull enough time to move with your body, causing your brain to press against your skull.

Rugby players are extremely susceptible to this type of injury because of the sheer ferocity of tackling in the sport.

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(Source: Wikipedia)

In the past, it was almost a taboo subject in rugby, with many players being too stubborn to address the issue. They just wanted to get on the pitch again and continue playing. But concussions can have a deadly affect on players.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a brain disease that can cause mood swings, depression, loss of memory and irritability. It can only be diagnosed after death.

It was found in the autopsies of several former NFL players who took their own lives, including 12-time Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau in 2012.

In the 2015 film, Concussion, starring Will Smith, a doctor goes against the NFL in America to tackle the subject of the fallout from concussion, once players have retired. This movie tackles the subject of CTE and the possibilities if it is not treated.

Concussions can lead to severe and fatal brain damage. Even though this film is about American football, the same can still apply to rugby.

There have been several cases in the last few years where concussion was not treated properly, leading to a backlash afterwards.

In the Six Nations last year, Welsh winger George North clearly lost consciousness on the pitch after banging his head while trying to stop England from scoring a try. Once he regained consciousness, North got back up and played on. He then missed the next few weeks and games recovering from the injury. North’s head trauma led to a probe by the sport’s governing body. The general consensus was that he should have been taken out of the game.

Rugby organisations are researching the long-term effects of injuries to players’ heads and necks, which can encounter forces stronger than an F-16 fighter pilot performing a roll. It’s partially protective, as the National Football League (NFL), National Hockey League (NHL) and other sports bodies face lawsuits from former athletes looking for compensation for disabilities.

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(Source: Wikimedia)

“We don’t want to be visiting our players in 25 years to find them suffering from dementia or other neurological diseases,” Saracens Rugby Club Chief Executive Officer Edward Griffiths has said.

Since rugby union turned professional in 1995, improved conditioning and diets as well as tackling higher up on the body instead of on the legs mean the game is more physical with more high-speed collisions.

There have been more discussions about concussion in world rugby and it has become less of a taboo subject now as everyone is aware of it.  When a player gets taken off the pitch for suspected concussion, the team doctor gives the player balance tests and also gives them general questions before sending them back into the game.

Rugby Union clubs have also implemented education programmes that spread awareness in the league and professional game. This aims to make players become more aware of concussions and help them understand what could happen to them if they aren’t careful when they have suffered a concussion.

The subject of concussion seems to be discussed more and more now compared to how it was only a few years ago. The fact that it could lead to fatal consequences for players only highlights that it needs to be treated properly in rugby. With technological advancements, treatment for concussion is improving with the end goal being to make the sport as safe as possible.

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