Scientist urges players to get head knocks checked
AS INTERNATIONAL debate rages about ongoing research into sports-related brain injuries and their minimisation, a local sports scientist, boxing veteran and rugby coach have weighed in on the issue.
Recent research has highlighted the real possibility that repetitive head impacts of a seemingly minor nature cause snowballing brain injury.
These "subconcussive" impacts "do not result in symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of concussion", according to the US National Academy of Sciences, but the long-term health impacts are likely considerable.
While the effects of repeated concussions are relatively well-known, research on subconcussive impacts raises new concerns for sporting bodies, officials, players and parents.
Southern Cross University School of Health and Human Sciences psychology lecturer Dr Jim Donnelly has researched sport-related brain injuries and said a change in culture in contact sport is needed.
"Head injuries can happen, but it's what you do afterwards that really matters," he said.
"If someone has any kind of altered consciousness, they need to get off the field and stay off the field.
"If you've suffered a concussion or altered consciousness you need to see a GP and a specialist who can check brain function."
Dr Donnelly believes concussion and repeated knocks need to be taken seriously and take precedent over money or pride.
I don't know how or if you could completely clean up contact sports. People go to see the blood - they love it
- Olympic boxer Athol McQueen
"People say 'get out there and tough it out' but we need to change that culture so the player's health is more important than winning the game," he said.
Dr Donnelly noted helmets do not stop head knocks, and that equestrian sport and so called non-collision sports, such as soccer (where the ball is headed), can also present a risk of brain injury.
He explained it's difficult to gauge exactly how repeated blows can affect players, as measuring changes in the brain over a period of time is difficult.
Players need to speak up: Coach
Far North Coast Rugby Union first-grade coach Ian Melhuish, a player and coach of 47 years, said players needed to speak up when they received a knock.
Brain injury in contact sport was not an issue when Melhuish was younger, but he believes emphasis on the issue is important.
"I've got a young bloke (son), who loves to tackle and wrestle around in the backyard and he takes a few knocks," he said.
"It is a bit of a worry now that all this research is coming out.
"You can teach proper tackling technique and things like that, but you'll never stop head knocks. It's a part of the game."
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Melhuish said managing injuries at a local level was fraught with difficulty.
"You don't have support staff on hand to make assessments and when you're warmed up you don't want to take a break and say 'maybe I should get a concussion test'," he said.
"With the smaller knocks, you try and shake them off and play on.
Watching the footy, a bloke was concussed and he was back on in half an hour. That shouldn't happen. It's a sport, not a murder
- Athol McQueen
"Maybe our guys locally need to say 'right, I've had a hit, it's time to take a break'."
Melhuish said too much regulation could take away the essence of contact sports, but he conceded it was a worrying issue that needed closer attention locally and nationally.
He was concerned the responsibility for managing head knocks and their follow-up at a local level might eventually be relegated to coaches, who would be out of their depth.
"Can't wrap kids in cotton wool"
Olympian boxer Athol McQueen is a man who has taken a few knocks, including a belting from the legendary Smokin' Joe Frazier.
"I don't know how or if you could completely clean up contact sports. People go to see the blood - they love it," he said.
"Something has got to be done, but you can't wrap kids in cotton wool. They already don't play sport like they used to."
McQueen said it was a difficult issue, but added players involved in contact sport, and younger player's parents, needed to take some personal responsibility and know when to take a break.
"It's all about commonsense and the referee too," he said.
"In boxing, you'll be taken off if you're concussed or take some hits, and if it happens again once you're back, they'll take you out for a while again.
"Watching the footy (NRL), a bloke was concussed and he was back on in half an hour. That shouldn't happen. It's a sport, not a murder."
McQueen said a cautious approach to head injuries was best, but he didn't advocate heavy regulation.