Concussion issue big enough but now research links big hits with Alzheimer’s
Brain injuries expert’s published case on early onset dementia caused by rugby could effect management of head injuries
“This individual, as far as we know it, is somebody whose exposure to head injury was purely through rugby and not through boxing or any other contact sport, so it represents the first, although I think it’s inevitable in these cases that it won’t be the last.
“We’re seeing Alzheimer’s proteins building up in the cells of these individuals and we expect to come across several more in the next few months.”
In rugby, the observable facts are that whatever kind of tackling is in vogue – high or low, single or double, hold them up, cut them down, aggressive or passive, there is no escaping the fact the head is a high risk area and the “hits” are part of the spectacle of the game that makes it appealing to both players and spectators.
Anecdotal evidence shows the players are interested in how heavy their tackles are and wear GPS monitors that can record significant amounts of material on movement, speed, distance and collisions.
After training they frequently download the readings to see how many Gs they pulled in their tackles.
In 2011, Ireland international hookers Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty retired from rugby because of repeated concussions. Jackman estimated he was concussed 20 times over three seasons.
Dr Stewart does not have the data yet to show what frequency or severity of head injury can or will lead to the build up of the dangerous proteins but in the US, researchers who have largely studied American football, put the figure at three concussions.
“We haven’t yet got to answering how many times you need to be hit,” says Dr Stewart. “However, our colleagues in America who are looking at American football suggest that three or more concussions does carry an increased risk of long term problems with cognitive brain function.
“Personally, I think that’s quite a low number. I think the number might be higher but I think it does put into context what we are talking about and that is it doesn’t take a huge number of concussions to potentially lead to long-term problems.
“We know to some extent that getting hit within a short space of time after a first hit is a more significant injury. It’s worse and will last longer.
“Whether we can say there is a frequency that people have to get hit to be at a risk, we just don’t know. You’re talking about a number and we don’t know. We believe it makes perfect sense to allow a long recovery after the first hit before exposing to the risk of another.
“At the moment they say a six or seven day turn around. I’d say that would be an absolute minimum.”
There is no data on the forces that players exposed themselves to 20 or 30 years ago, which is presumably when the 50-year-old man whose tissue was examined, was playing.