FORMER Scotland rugby players are being encouraged to participate in a ground-breaking research project into the long-term consequences of concussion, which is expected to benefit future generations.
At a joint press conference at Murrayfield yesterday, Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, and James Robson, Scottish Rugby’s Chief Medical Officer, explained why they are urging as many ex-internationals as possible to participate in the project, which is being conducted by researchers from the University of Glasgow.
“Last weekend I was at a summit in New York attended by medical leaders from a wide range of sports including the International Rugby Board, American Football, Ice-Hockey, Fifa and so on, and I couldn’t believe some of the conversations which were going on in terms of the general acceptance in the room that if you get three or more concussions then you have a higher risk of developing dementia. In fact, there’s no evidence to support that at all,” explained Dr Stewart.
“That’s why this study is incredibly important because it is, for the first time, going to pull together some evidence and data to explain what happens to people who suffer concussion.”
“While there is a lot of anxiety about how to assess and manage people who have sustained the injury on the day of the game, there is relatively little understanding of what the implications might be further down the line.
“There is anxiety that there might be an increased risk of a particular form of dementia, but in reality we don’t have real hard science, or facts, or data to base that assumption on, beyond one or two anecdotal cases.
“So, we’ve been inviting former internationalists in to be interviewed. We do some health checks with them, and we do some fairly refined interview assessments to see if there is any evidence that people who have played rugby at the highest level and been exposed to head injury have any issues which need to be looked at seriously.
“It is incredibly important because it gives us a picture for the first time in rugby union of what the problems may be, if there are any problems. And only then is it possible to have any meaningful change in terms of the rules or the way the game is managed to benefit player welfare.
“The more people we have involved in the study the more informative it will be. Recruitment is going well.
“We’re running this for 12 months and we’re on target at the halfway stage, but that is a minimum number and I’d like to exceed that considerably because the more we get the better we can answer specific questions,” he added.
Meanwhile, Robson was keen to stress that rather than scaring people away from the game, the Scottish Rugby Union’s willingness to address this issue in a serious and honest manner should be taken as evidence that the sport in this country takes player welfare seriously.
“We have pledged to make the game as safe as it can be and in Scotland we have introduced a number of safety initiatives at all levels of the game over the last few years with that objective uppermost in our minds. Player welfare has improved significantly but that does not mean we should rest on our laurels,” said Robson, who has served as Scotland and Lions doctor for more than two decades.
“The concern is that we are seen to be putting our head in the sand and ignoring a potential health problem. I’m not prepared to do that. We need to find out if there was a problem with the way our players were managed in the past in order to make it safer in the future.
“You’ve got to remember that concussion can happen in any walk of life so if we can make management of the injury as a whole better through what we are doing in rugby then that’s a good thing for all of society. There is a perception among many doctors that concussion is only concussion if you have been knocked out, but we know that is not true. So there is an education issue for a broad spectrum of people here.”
Stewart then explained that there is no danger of rugby being damaged by concerns over the way concussion is managed in the way that American Football has suffered in recent years.
“The difference here is that Scottish Rugby – and the game globally – has acted very responsibly to the evidence which has come through in respect to the risks of concussion and that goes back several years now. They’ve tried to improve protocols and so on,” he said. “In American Football they were conscious of concussion issues in their game going back to the mid-90s and set up their own enquiry which produced data which they interpreted in a certain light suggesting that head injuries weren’t bad for you at all and in fact sometimes they might actually be good for you, and that is what has really got them in trouble because that clearly wasn’t true.” Any former internationalists wishing to participate in the study can contact a member of the Head Injury Research Group on 0141 211 0651 or by email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We have contacted a lot of people and we know that quite a number haven’t yet come forward, so we’re just trying to encourage them to reply to that letter or e-mail they received, or follow the links on the website,” Stewart concluded.
“We can see people at Murrayfield, at the research unit in Glasgow, we’ve been to London to see some of the people down south, and if all else fails and there is no way to get together, we can do a lot of the assessment over the phone. So people don’t have to give up a big chunk of their day to come and see us – we can sort something out.”