Is rugby putting my child at risk of brain injury?

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Is rugby putting my child at risk of brain injury?


With the Rugby World Cup now in full flow, attention has been brought to the high frequency of brain injuries that occur within the sport. A 59% rise in reported concussions in English rugby from 2013-2014 speaks to the routine nature of head injuries in a sport that has come to accept these as a normal part of matches. However, a BBC Panorama investigation has highlighted the need for change within the game, as medical professionals including World Rugby's chief medical officer Martin Rafferty, speak up about the long-term dangers of these 'minor' concussions.

The implications of this conversation around rugby and brain injury are huge for sport and health as a whole. It is not only professional-level rugby that presents the danger of concussion.

As a parent, you might be worried about what all this means for your children. After all, PE and team sports are a vital part of school life and lots of children play for teams outside of school hours. We also hear an increasing amount of news pertaining to the expanding waistlines of children in this country and sport is a wonderful way to combat what some are calling an obesity epidemic.

However, if you have a son or daughter who plays for a rugby team, or indeed any contact sports team, the fears about concussion that are currently being raised might be striking a chord. Although there is no evidence to suggest that school sports should be avoided, rare cases of concussions having drastic repercussions are heard of and it's certainly important that steps are taken to combat this.

One particularly tragic example is that of 14-year-old Ben Robinson, who died of second impact syndrome in 2011 after suffering a concussion playing rugby. Though Ben's case is thought to be the only one of its kind to have been recorded in the UK, the incidence rate of concussion in school rugby is thought to be fairly high, and exact far-reaching data, is hard to find.

1 in 8 children suffer an injury that will keep them off the pitch for seven days

Professor Allyson Pollock carried out research into injuries experienced by rugby playing schoolchildren after her own rugby-playing son suffered three serious injuries, including concussion. According to Professor Pollock, figures show that 1 in 8 children suffer an injury that will keep them off the pitch for seven days every season.

66% of boys do not report their concussion to anyone

Research carried out by England Rugby found that 66% of the 16-18 year old boys in their research group did not leave the field after a concussion, and that 38% of them did not report their concussion to anyone. This is despite the finding that 66% of the boys in the research group did view concussion as a serious injury. This evidence of the under-reporting of concussion among schoolchildren throws light onto the difficulty of establishing accurate data from which to draw conclusions.

In the UK, groups like England Rugby are taking a proactive approach towards safety in school rugby by promoting the International Rugby Board's (IRB) regulations and pushing forward with the '4 Rs.'

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While recognising that most cases of concussion resolve themselves within 7-10 days, England Rugby advocates a conservative approach that gives young people plenty of time to ensure that they are fully fit before returning to activities that could cause them further damage. Although for some this approach could sound over- cautious, evidence for the long-term damage that can be caused by concussion is damning. In the United States, an increase in sports-related catastrophic injuries and deaths among young people has been seen in recent years. This led to the inception of the Alliance for Youth Sports Safety (a grouping of healthcare and sports organizations), whose research has thrown up worrying statistics. These include around 8,000 children treated in emergency rooms every day for sports-related injuries, 400,000 concussions in one school year and the finding that 50% of second impact syndrome incidents result in death.

When children are hurt in road collisions, we make the roads safer

The UK and the USA are patently very different nations with different populations. The fact that American football which is barely played in this country - has been strongly connected to brain injury, may speak to the greater level of research that has been conducted into sports-related injuries in young people in America. This doesn't, however, mean that we should ignore the rising trend for concussions. When children suffer traumatic brain injuries because of road collisions, we actively try and make the roads safer and to instil a sense of road safety into our children. The same should be done in regards to sports injuries, and the '4 Rs' is a good start.

As a parent, it will help to be aware of the facts surrounding concussion. The Brain Injury Rehabilitation Trust (BIRT) advises that it is not always easy to diagnose concussion in its helpful advice sheet: BIRT_statement.pdf. Not everybody is aware, for example, that when a person is concussed, they will not necessarily pass out.

As well as having a better understanding of concussion, it's a good idea to try and make sure that your son or daughter knows it is important that they tell you if they have been concussed, even if they think they have recovered immediately. A concussion is a brain injury, even when it does not have serious implications, and making sure that you know of any brain injuries that your son or daughter might have suffered is extremely important.

You can find out more about concussion and sport by following the links below:

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