Headgear findings could prove a cut above


BOXING:The likelihood of the International Amateur Boxing Association (IABA) removing protective headgear from male Olympic boxers for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games is not as outrageous an idea as it appears.

In the constant outpouring of opinion about boxing and its safety, Swedish doctor Sanna Neselius, a former top amateur and professional boxer, who has studied the effects of mild trauma to the brain, believes that headgear in Olympic boxing serves largely to protect boxers from getting cut.

Protective rain from rotational forces, the main damaging influence when the face is hit by a punch during competition. “The headgear doesn’t protect the brain from the rotational forces caused by hitting the jaw. The main function of the headgear is actually that it protects boxers from cuts,” said Dr Neselius.

“In professional boxing 15 per cent of all bouts are stopped due to cuts. In Olympic boxing this problem hardly exists. In that respect I think it’s a pity that bouts can be stopped [by cut] just because you don’t have protection. Of course if a boxer gets knocked out the headgear can protect from the second hit when the head hits the floor.”

The former boxer is in Dublin’s Royal College of Surgeons tomorrow night for a talk on the issue of boxing and what effect punching, or mild trauma associated with other sports, has on the brain. Part of a research group at the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in collaboration with the Swedish Boxing Federation, Dr Neselius showed that Olympic boxers can exhibit changes in brain fluids after bouts, which indicates nerve cell damage.

The group studied 30 top-level Swedish boxers and demonstrated that repeated blows to the head in the boxing ring can produce a release of brain injury markers to the brain fluid, similar to what is seen with other types of head trauma, as well as in neurological illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite the findings, however, Dr Neselius has not jumped on the anti-boxing bandwagon and hopes further analysis will provide a blood test that can definitively indicate whether injured athletes have brain damage or not. The studies in Sweden were conducted by the more invasive removal of spinal fluid, which is not a practical way to test athletes.

“There is no such tool now. It will have to be in the future,” she said of a simple blood test to determine concussive injuries. “Of course it would be helpful to have a simple blood test instead of being forced to do a lumbar puncture like we have to do now.

“We have also analysed the blood in this boxing group and we will publish an article about the results. It has been accepted for publication and the results will be in the article.”

Risk sports

A blood test would revolutionise the recognition and treatment of such injuries across all sports, particularly in the physically aggressive sports such as boxing, rugby and American football, where the risk of injury to the head is high.

“I am a boxer myself and I realise that boxing is a risk sport along with other risk sports. I would like to increase the medical security. If we could find a blood test that was simple to perform at the emergency department, that would be absolutely brilliant.

“I have always known that boxing is a risk sport and that was a calculated risk I was willing to take. I think all people who perform risk sports are aware of the risks. I also think that it is better to perform a risk sport than not to perform sport at all [the health benefits outweigh the chances of injury]. If you are aware of the risks then you can handle the risks in a certain way. We showed that after a bout the levels [brain injury proteins] are increased but after two weeks in most boxers the levels are normal. The conclusion can be that if you rest for a couple of weeks after the bout then your brain has time to heal.”

Dr Neselius has sent the findings of her study to the IABA but has not yet heard back from them.

In recent months the sport has moved closer towards professional boxing and now permits boxers such as Olympic silver medallist John Joe Nevin and European light heavyweight champion Joe Ward to take part in professional competitions.

The two boxers participate in the first of the professional World Series of Boxing this weekend in London. “I sent my results to the IABA but they haven’t shown a great interest yet,” explained Dr Neselius. “Hopefully it will come. The results are new and sometimes you need time to take new facts in before you react.”

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