A sharp rise in the number of young people reporting to the emergency department at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin with head injuries has been linked to a growing knowledge of the dangers of concussion.
Speaking at a meeting of the Oireachtas Health Committee, Prof John Ryan, consultant in emergency medicine at the hospital, said the number of 14 to 18-year-olds reporting with head injuries increased by 41 per cent between the 2012/13 and 2013/14 sporting seasons.
He said this surge was not a result of an increased number of people participating in sports but a sign that awareness about concussion and the potential consequences was increasing among players, coaches and parents.
Prof Ryan was one of a number of doctors and professors who addressed the committee today on the subject of concussion in sport, which the Acquired Brain Injury Ireland group says has become the third most common match-day injury.
Scrum caps used in rugby, Prof Ryan said, protected the player’s scalp rather than brain from injury but gave a false sense of security to some of those who wore them that they provided protection.
Dr Éanna Falvey, who works with the Irish rugby team, said such equipment brought about cases of “risk compensation” whereby people did things they normally would not do because they felt protected.
Dr Michael Molloy, a consultant rheumatologist, said people involved in sport could be seen to be bulking but this brought an increased risk of head injuries and concussion as "the bigger they are the bigger the collision".
Dr Falvey said that, in rugby, the average forward was now about 10kg heavier than in the past and that backs were some 8kg bigger.
The committee also heard that the amount of data available in Ireland, and globally, on concussions and the effects was limited.
Dr Michael Farrell, consultant neuropathologist at Beaumont Hospital, said there was only anecdotal evidence that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others, was a consequence of repeated concussions.
He said much of the science and data surrounding the subject of concussion was “dirty” and that, while expensive, an international study of the subject would be doable.
Fianna Fáil health spokesman Billy Kelleher TD said potential injuries to their children were a massive concern for parents but that it was important incorrect conclusions did not discourage people from playing sports.
Many of the contributors to the discussion said strict guidelines and education programmes rather than legislation were necessary to ensure concussions and head injuries were properly managed at all levels of sport. Should these initiatives fail to succeed, legislation could be sought at a later date, the committee heard.
Dublin gaelic football player Michael Darragh MacAuley told the committee he had been knocked out cold and left seeing stars as a result of collisions in games and that you are “no use to anybody on the field” afterwards.
However, he said players had a “warrior ethos” and were always keen to complete a game they started.
The committee heard that less than 10 per cent of concussions occur in situations where the person has been knocked out.
Barbara O’Connell, Acquired Brain Injury Ireland chief executive, said this underscored the need for coaches and parents to be educated to recognise the symptoms of a concussion and get the player off the pitch to lessen the chance of further injury.
Research carried out by the organisation and the Gaelic Players Association found that 42 per cent of players that had sustained a concussion during a game played on and did not remember the rest of the match afterwards.