AFL’s 12-day concussion rule not long enough
Scans of injured footballers' brains have revealed many are still damaged two weeks after suffering knocks to the head.
The finding by top Melbourne scientists suggests the AFL's new 12-day concussion stand-down rule - which has also been adopted by all its local and junior leagues - is inadequate.
The 12-day rule, introduced this year, is double the previous break but well short of the 30 days some experts say is needed for heavily-concussed players.
Associate Professor David Wright of Monash University's Department of Neuroscience said the AFL's new concussion protocol may still be allowing footballers to take the field before their brain had fully recovered.
Using MRI scans, his team identified clear differences between the brains of 14 concussed Victorian amateur footballers and 16 uninjured players.
Results reveal microscopic "robust changes" to fibre bundles that make up the white matter in the brain persisted after 14 days.
Prof Wright said it was clear structural damage remained in vital areas of their brains that could be exacerbated by further head knocks.
"The challenge is that the player feels fine and a lot of the assessments that are done at the moment are all based on the player's symptoms, how they are feeling and whether they can pass the concussion test," he said.
"Our research is showing those tests aren't necessarily sensitive enough or able to detect those underlying brain changes that are still persisting.
"The athlete can feel fine and run around the football field, but in actual fact if you look at their brain images there are still some changes that have not resolved."
While the damage had eased between scans 48 hours and then 14 days after the head knocks, Prof Wright said bigger studies over at least four weeks were needed to really know how long it took the player's brain to fully recover.
"It (the AFL's 12-day exclusion) is a great step in the right direction, but it is arbitrary," he said.
"I don't want to see my favourite players sitting out any longer than necessary, but we have got to think of the health of the athletes and that is the main concern."
The findings come as a Victorian coroner is set to investigate the league's response to head injuries as part of an inquest into the death of Richmond footballer Shane Tuck, and a WorkSafe probe on footy concussion enters its 17th month.
The WorkSafe investigation was triggered in November 2019 after player agent Peter Jess lodged a complaint, claiming the return-to-play protocols were unsafe.
"The fact that the league agreed to introduce a 12-day concussion rule in January only confirms my long-held view that the AFL's rules around concussions were unsafe and continue to be unsafe on all the medical and scientific evidence presented to them," Mr Jess said.
The Herald Sun on Tuesday revealed 29 AFL players have been concussed so far this season. The AFL has said the new rule was based on advice from its medical officers, and 12 days was the earliest a player could return, with some needing a longer recovery.
The preliminary Monash research, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, also indicated female footballers may be less affected by concussion than men.
While concussed women also had detectable changes in their brains two weeks after a head knock, the injuries appeared less severe.
With between six and seven concussions occurring for every 1000 match hours played across amateur and professional Australian rules football leagues, it would be impossible for every affected player to receive exhaustive MRI scans.
Originally published as AFL's 12-day concussion rule not long enough