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May 12, 2021

A Silent Killer: Are Sporting Bodies Failing Players Regarding Concussions?

• Only 1 in 5 top sporting bodies currently publish easily accessible concussion data
• Only 1 in 10 youth coaches had heard of the ‘If in doubt, sit them out’ initiative
• Study shows while teenage girls are more likely than boys to get concussion in football, they’re less likely to be removed from play

With the government’s inquiry into the long-term effects of head injuries in sports well-underway, which of the top UK sports will fare best (and worst) when it comes to their protocols? Specialist lawyers Bolt Burdon Kemp (BBK) investigated, with expert commentary from Ipek Tugcu, Senior Associate of the Adult Brain Injury Team at BBK.

Rugby England scores highest for publishing own concussion data regularly

All sporting bodies have some form of guidelines surrounding protocols during professional games. However, it is clear we are lacking robust data that demonstrates the real-life outcomes of these sports. Our research finds that, out of those analysed, only rugby has easily accessible data on concussions, with the Rugby Football Union publishing data regularly. While the FA have recently announced their decision to fund the Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk (FIELD) study – this has not yet been released.

Do official guidelines exist for concussions? Concussion data score
Rugby Y 5/5
Football Y 3/5
Cricket Y 3/5
Hockey Y 3/5
Netball Y 2/5

Ultimately, if people don’t know the facts and figures, it leaves them uninformed in relation to their chosen sport, the way that they play, and possibly how they will handle their own head injuries in the future. Top sporting bodies particularly, should use their resources to lead by example and release more of their data in pursuit of this aim.

Top sporting bodies leading by example will help youth gain better understanding
Evidence suggests that children, particularly teenagers, are more likely to suffer concussion than adults. It is therefore crucial that any new measures account for all levels, filtering all the way through to youth sport – which does not seem to be the case as it stands:

• Only 1 in 10 youth coaches had heard of the ‘If in doubt, sit them out’ initiative (where players with suspected concussion are immediately removed from the field).
• Girls who play football may be at double the risk of suffering concussions compared to boys of same age, but are less likely to be removed from play.
• One study states risk of concussion is two times greater in 18-year-olds than in 13-year-old athletes.

Signs and symptoms to look out for with concussion

It’s important to act fast and appropriately when a possible concussion arises, because some symptoms won’t show for a few days or weeks after the person has suffered the injury. Some signs and symptoms can include:

• Headaches that don’t go away after taking painkillers
• Dizziness, clumsiness or problems with balance
• Feeling nauseous or vomiting
• Extreme tiredness or struggling to stay awake
• Memory loss, particularly of events that happened immediately before or after the injury
• Feeling stunned, dazed or confused
• Intolerance to loud noises
• Changes in vision, including blurred vision and sensitivity to light
• Unusual behaviour, including mood swings
• Being knocked out at the time of the head injury

Ipek Tugcu, a Senior Associate in the Adult Brain Injury Team at Bolt Burdon Kemp, comments on the findings:
“There have been decade-long concerns that brain injuries have been ignored and mismanaged in sports. These concerns can now be corroborated with evidence, including a study from 2019 which proves that professional footballers have a much higher risk of suffering neurodegenerative disease compared to the general public. Whilst the focus has primarily been on concussions, the latest findings show that even trauma to the head which does not cause concussion (i.e. sub-concussive blows) can raise the risk of a brain injury.”

“Of course, a risk of injury exists in every sport – but the issue is a universal lack of proper protocols to safeguard athletes against the known risks of their job. The reality is, much more can still be done to protect players against brain injuries whilst still maintaining the authenticity and spirit of the sports. The government has had to step in because sporting governing bodies have failed to make the required reasonable, but subtle, steps to protect their athletes. This is now at a crisis point that goes far beyond sports, and spills over to affect national and local resources. I am hopeful that the mounting pressure of the research, legal claims brought by former players and the government inquiry will bring real change that make sports safer for generations to come, and compensates those who were unnecessarily harmed.”

Methodology:

We chose 5 popular UK sports and ranked them for their protocols and data surrounding concussions. One point was given to each sport if they had easily available UK information for the following: sporting association concussion guidelines, sporting association concussion data, recent concussion data (2019 upwards), youth concussion data, and data regarding the number of players who received concussions. With one point given per category, we were able to give each sport an overall score from 0-5. Easily available data was classed as information that could be found through simple Google searches. Data on youth sports is taken from the University of Stirling’s March 2021 study on football coaches in Scottish youth football, the Professional Footballers’ Association’s findings on concussions on teenage girls and teenage boys, and the NCBI study titled Incidence and Risk of Concussions in Youth Athletes: Comparisons of Age, Sex, Concussion History, Sport, and Football Position (2018).

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