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Head injuries: An uncomfortable truth for sports

Much has been made of recent events at Sunday's Tottenham Hotspur v Everton game, where Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris briefly lost consciousness after a collision with Everton player Romelu Lukaku, but was allowed to continue to play.  Lloris has since said he doesn't remember the incident, and conflicting messages have come out regarding what action the club should have taken in respect of Lloris' injury.  Although manager Andre Villas Boas has been branded as "irresponsible and "dangerous by brain injury charity, Headway, a statement from the club claims that medical staff were "totally satisfied that he was fit to continue playing.  

The incident is the latest in a seemingly growing trend of sports not properly engaging with the dangers that head injuries can pose to an individual.  In Rugby Union, Dr Barry O'Driscoll, the sport's chief medical officer (and uncle to Irish rugby legend Brian O'Driscoll), resigned last month over a decision to trial a new protocol for dealing with head injuries - the Pitch-Side Concussion Assessment (PSCA).  These guidelines say a player can return to a game just five minutes after the injury, as long as a medical inspection clears the player of concussion.  Previous rules meant players suspected of concussion had to leave the pitch and take a week off.  

Meanwhile, across the pond, the National Football League (NFL) settled a claim brought against them by former American Football players and their families for suggestions that the organisation hid the dangers of concussion from its players, concealing the risk of long-term brain damage.  The case, involving more than 4,500 former players, was settled for a staggering $765m (£490m), and adds fuel to the fire that was started in 2002 when forensic neuropathologist, Dr Bennet Omalu, looked at the brain of deceased NFL star Mike Webster.  He made the shocking discovery that Webster had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) a degenerative brain disease that had previously only been associated with punch-drunk boxers.  Although the precise cause of the disease isn't known, the constant in all recorded cases to date is a history of concussions, or repetitive sub-concussive head injuries.  

Each of these orgnisations has teams of medical experts advising them on the best course of action to take when sports personalities are injured during an event.  It is clear that these medical professionals will give their client the best advice and guidance they can.  However, those involved with sports, are often under pressure from commercial partners and media partners to ensure that big spectacles are produced, getting what O'Driscoll calls "big hits, which may mean pressure may be being put on medical experts to ensure players can carry on with play.  Outside of the exceedingly well paid elite sports personalities, even simple financial pressures may contribute to someone's consideration to play on after receiving a blow to the head.  

Some athletes obviously put pressure on themselves to perform, like 25-year old Kevin Pearce, formerly one of the world's top trick jumping snowboarders.  When an attempt at a double cork (a trick involving three-and-a-half rotations with two-and-a-half inverted spins) went wrong for Pearce in 2009, he suffered severe head injuries, and was in a coma for six days.  His recovery has been lengthy, and despite Pearce's attempt, he will never be able to compete.  His brain will simply not allow him to do it and he has instead devoted himself to a campaign to help victims of traumatic brain injuries.  Pearce puts the blame at the door of the athletes, and not the sport, saying that "It was me.  Snowboarding is about freedom and if limits were put on it or if there were rules, it wouldn't work."

According to the NHS choices website, concussion occurs when the part of your brain known as the reticular activating system (RAS) suffers a disruption due to a sudden blow or impact to the head.  Although concussion can be mild, it is vital not to ignore a head impact, as it may result in greater internal damage.  

Whether or not you believe the actions of athletes and sports organisations to be irresponsible when it comes to athletes' welfare, those who have suffered a blow to the head must take head injury seriously.  At JMW, we've seen many cases where clients were injured in an accident, whether on the road, at work, or in a public place, and have suffered a head injury.  Recovery from these injuries can be incredibly complex, traumatic and distressing, depending on the particular symptoms the injured party exhibits, which can vary victim to victim.  Regardless of the circumstances, we would urge anyone who has suffered a blow to the head to seek medical advice and, if the blow was as a result of someone else's negligence, legal advice.

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