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Sport has a lot to learn

14 Mar 2022

Sport has a lot to learn

HEAD INJURIES IN SPORT Head injuries in amateur and professional rugby and football have been highlighted following a number of high profile players recently suffering head injuries whilst on the pitch.

With many players suffering blows to the head on the pitch whilst audiences look on in horror, the risks to players are all too apparent.

Until the late 1980's heavy, leather footballs were used which easily absorbed water making the balls particularly heavy. The repeated heading of these balls has been cited as the cause behind many ex-players dementia and in rugby repeated concussions due to lack of player safety on the pitch. Today's footballs are made of a material that doesn't absorb water so are lighter.

For many sports players the damage to their brain after repeated heavy blows to the head, due to headers and collisions has already been done. We look at the risks in sport.

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Footballers are 3½ times more likely to suffer from dementia and similar conditions. Cases such as that of former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle and members of the 1966 England World Cup squad including Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles who have died after suffering from brain functioning diseases believed to be linked closely to heading footballs are some examples of the truth behind this. The Jeff Astle Foundation was set up after the death of footballer Jeff Astle who was the ‘first British professional footballer confirmed to have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals (usually athletes) with a history of head injury, often as a result of multiple concussions. In Jeff Astle’s case, it was the repeated, low level brain trauma believed to have been caused from the repeated heading of footballs.’


The link between sport and head injuries led the FA to introduce new header guidance to English football. The guidance states that “It will be recommended that a maximum of ten higher force headers are carried out in any training week.” FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said that the FA is introducing “the most comprehensive adult football guidelines anywhere. Our heading guidance now reaches across all players, at all levels of the game. These measures have been developed following studies with coaches and medics and represent a cautious approach whilst we learn more. We are committed to further medical research to gain an understanding of any risks within football, in the meantime,this reduces a potential risk factor.


Rugby also has a lot to learn. Research shows that 20% of rugby injuries are head injuries. Many rugby players have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. There is currently a list of more than 150 former players who are taking legal action against World Rugby, England’s Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union for brain injuries. World Cup winner Steve Thompson, former Wales back-row Alix Popham and ex-England flanker Michael Lipman were the first players to confirm they were part of the test group for the lawsuit, with all three revealing they had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE. In rugby, concussion takes place frequently with many high impact collisions just look at the recent example of the opening minutes of Wales' Six Nations clash with France as Tomos Williams appeared to suffer a serious head injury.


According to A Delicate Game: Brain Injury, Sport and Sacrifice by Hana Walker-Brown ‘After collisions crucial tau proteins begin to build up inside the brain. These have a degenerative effect and sufferers typically enter several stages of decline‘ The publication details how sports are ‘belatedly introducing protocols that require players to leave the field of play after an incident and take enforced breaks from fixtures if they have officially suffered a concussion. Yet the overall impression to take from this is how many sports bosses are still reluctant to admit they have a problem.’ For many players, the research and the changes to football and rugby are too little too late.


Head and brain injuries happen in all sorts of sports, not just rugby or football

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