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An image of rugby players locking heads about to engage in a scrum illustrating the head impacts and brain injuries in sport

MPs have launched an inquiry into the link between sport and brain injury.

While the link in sports such as boxing has been self-evident, with serious brain injury and death still an all too regular outcome, it is the recent increase in footballers and rugby players who have been diagnosed with dementia, memory loss and other consequences of brain injury that is getting headlines. This is particularly of importance as we consider contact sport for children and young adults.

The link between sport and brain injury

The concern of a link between sport and brain injury started in the USA with a number of American Football stars reporting symptoms of brain injury at a far younger age than the general population. The high speed impacts in games along with a sense of invulnerability due to the protective padding and helmets meant challenges were getting harder. Players would play on although stunned, or suffering from blurred vision. They would ignore doctor’s advice to be replaced, demanding to carry on playing.

I certainly remember football players with blooded bandages trying to stem a significant head wound playing on, heading the ball for the sake of the national team. Being dazed and stunned might seem a momentary issue and that professional sportspeople should be able to “shake it off”. However, the reality appears to be that this attitude to sport does come at a health cost to that individual in the long term.

Steve Thompson, one of the heroes of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning team recently confirmed he has no recollection of this hugely significant game at all. There are an increasing number of former players looking at lawsuits against sports governing bodies.

Sport, brain injury and voluntary risk

In sport, whether amateur or professional, the concept of accepting a voluntary risk is usually used to avoid litigation. If I am playing Sunday football, I understand that I might twist an ankle or fracture a leg in a tackle. I cannot however consent to a risk I did not know about.

More detailed brain scanning is now possible, which shows evidence of trauma and damage at deeper levels in the brain than could be picked up on normal CT or MRI scans. These areas of damage may well be linked to either one major and/or multiple repeated minor concussions.

What appears to be the case is that certain parts of some game (tackling, accidental clashes of heads, heading the ball) are capable of causing brain damage, which will only become evident later on. Already some sports have tightened up their head injury protocols to reflect that understanding.

Drawing a line for brain injury in sport

While we all want to enjoy sport, and we want to cheer on our sporting heroes to “leave it all on the field of play for club and country” at what point does a line need to be drawn? Some sports may need rule changes. If not, rather than being a healthy pastime keeping our nation fit and healthy, these sports may be seen as causing early care needs and increased hospital treatment.

About Michael Wangermann

This article was written by Michael Wangermann. Michael is a Partner at Brain Injury Group member firm Ashtons Legal where he heads the Injury Services Group. For over 20 years he has been focusing on helping clients to get their lives back on track after traumatic injury. Ashtons Legal are based in East Anglia and look after clients nationwide.

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