The long-term risks of rugby players who are regularly sent back onto the field despite having brain damage from concussion could be higher rates of dementia, major depression and other neurodegenerative conditions later in life, the experts said.
Already there is evidence of such problems already being found among American football players who suffer similar rates of knocks to the head.
Barry O’Driscoll, a former International Rugby Board medical advisor who spoke to Reuters on the sidelines of a Rugby Football Union (RFU) conference on concussion, said he had no doubt that injured players were going back into a dangerous environment.
“We are sending concussed players back onto the field – brain damaged players,” he said.”We know now what’s going on in the brain as soon as it is hit. The glucose metabolism, the oxygen uptake, the electrolytes … are all thrown completely out. This is a brain in disarray. It’s not functioning properly. The decision making is reduced, the cognitive function is reduced, and the emotions are thrown. What on earth is a person in that state going back onto the rugby field for?”
O’Driscoll resigned from the IRB last year in protest at the board’s attitude to concussion.
Martin Raftery, chief medical officer for the IRB, defended its position, saying, “Ultimately the message to players, coaches and parents at all levels of the game is to recognise the symptoms of concussion and remove the player permanently from the training or playing field,” he said in a statement ahead of the IRB’s medical commission conference, due to start in Dublin, Ireland, next week.
Data presented at the conference show that concussion is currently the most common injury in the professional game, with between four and five instances for every 1 000 hours of rugby played. This compares with around 25 instances for every 1 000 hours of horse racing, and around 0.2 instances for every 1 000 hours of play in the NFL.