Understanding concussion

Understanding concussion

The Blues and New Zealand Rugby go to great lengths to tackle the problem of concussion in our game head on – but what is a concussion and what are its symptoms?

The most common type of head injury in sport, a concussion can occur when a player receives an impact to the head or body that causes the brain to shake inside the skull.

A concussion may cause anything from headaches, dizziness, confusion and nausea, to disturbed sleep, moodiness, and even amnesia.

“We treat concussion extremely seriously,” says Blues team doctor Stephen Kara. “But with diagnosis and proper care, the injury is only temporary and the vast majority of players will make a full recovery within 7-10 days.”

So exactly how do they diagnose a concussion? As it turns out, it’s not easy – even for trained professionals.

Recognising the symptoms

You don’t have to lose consciousness for a concussion to occur – in fact, Dr Kara says only about 10% of rugby players who get a concussion are ever knocked-out in the tackle – and there are no visible symptoms, which can make one difficult to diagnose.

In Super Rugby, if a player appears stunned, dazed or confused after an impact, our team doctor will ask them some of the following questions to check if the player is okay to remain on the field:

  • What ground are we at?
  • Which team are we playing today?
  • Who are you marking?
  • Which half is it?
  • What is the score of the game?

If they answer any of the questions incorrectly, or are slow to respond, it indicates that they have probably sustained a concussion and should not continue to play.

Indeed, Dr Kara says that even if a player answers all these questions correctly, he still may not let them play on if they’re unsteady, confused, or otherwise “seem just a little bit off”.

Meanwhile, players with other symptoms such as blurred vision, headaches, or sensitivity to light and noise, will be pulled from the game immediately. No questions asked.

Concussion red flags

Our players have full access to the team doctor, but players at grass-roots level may not have the same access to care. So, if anyone demonstrates any of these red flags for concussion, Dr Kara says they should go see a medical professional immediately:

  • Worsening headache
  • Increased drowsiness or can’t be woken up.
  • Vomiting
  • Increased confusion or agitation
  • Weakness in any limbs
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness or seizure

Players should not return to sport until symptom free AND medically cleared to play.

Remember, even if concussion symptoms aren’t immediately obvious, they can occur later, so it’s important to keep a close eye on any player who has suffered a head nock.

Concussion facts and fiction

Dr Kara is quick to point out there’s still a lot of medical uncertainty surrounding concussion, as medical professionals around the world continue to study its causes and effects.

But on these facts he was certain:

  • Rugby head gear and mouthguards (though important to always wear for other reasons) offer no protection against concussion at all.
  • At the grassroots level, the community’s role to play is recognising the symptoms and signs of concussion, removing the player from the game, and referring them to a medical professional for a diagnosis
  • Concussion is an evolving process, so whilst people might be normal to start with, they can develop symptoms later on. Keep an eye on anyone who has suffered a head nock or collision.
  • Got any concerns? Talk to your GP.

For more information, check out New Zealand Rugby’s concussion resources.

Photo by Photosport NZ