Teenage rugby players who suffer even minor knocks to the head could develop brain injuries in later life, a leading medical expert has warned.
Dr Adrian McGoldrick, chief medical adviser for the Irish Turf Club, said multiple “sub-concussive blows” may leave certain players more vulnerable to developing serious brain injuries.
The danger of repeated blows to the head was brought into focus at the weekend when Leinster captain Johnny Sexton (30) suffered the latest in a catalogue of concussions in his career against Wasps in the Champions Cup.
He suffered four concussions in 2014 and was stood down from play in December of that year.
The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) states that teams must follow strict ‘return to play’ protocols after a player is concussed. The day after the head injury, the individual must rest completely.
This is followed by light cardiovascular work on an exercise bike. If no symptoms appear, the player can begin moderate running followed by some strength and conditioning work. If the player does not show any after-effects, he can return to full contact training.
If a player shows signs of concussion at any stage, they go back to stage one and begin again, the IRFU added.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Dr McGoldrick praised the IRFU for being “exceptionally proactive” in tackling the issue. “These type of blows may cause problems further down the line, or leave the person more prone to developing a concussion. Also, the threshold for absorbing impact may be reduced,” he said. “If a player is getting repeated blows to the head, the recovery period gets longer. Teenage brains are more sensitive as they’re still developing.”
He said only about 8pc of concussions will result in loss of consciousness.
“If the athlete does lose consciousness for more than a minute, they’re more likely to have a delayed recovery,” he added. He said research shows a small number of people who suffer concussion go on to develop “long-term” problems.
“There’s still so much to learn about the condition. The brain can take a significant amount of injury and make a full recovery. And while the vast majority of people are not left with any lasting damage, a small minority will develop long-term effects.
“But it’s still an inexact science.”