09 November 2015
The Concussion and Brain Injury Risk in School Sports
The Rugby World Cup is now a distant memory and schoolchildren across the country will have been awe-struck by the six weeks of sport they’ve seen on the television.
From England’s opening game victory against Fiji right through to when New Zealand captain Ritchie McCaw lifted the trophy after the All Blacks’ emphatic victory against Australia in the final, the 2015 World Cup has been hailed the biggest and best tournament to date, and will have inspired children across the land to take up the sport.
Getting kids involved in sport is great and something to be encouraged, but with a growing awareness around concussion in rugby, are schools and sports clubs aware of the risks?
School Rugby and the Injury Risk
The brain injury risks associated with rugby have been known for a long time. Medical researchers have recommended that rugby shouldn’t be promoted in school, saying that up to one in eight children will suffer serious rugby injuries.
With rugby compulsory in many independent schools, and more schools likely to introduce rugby to pupils on the back of a successful World Cup, the sport is not going to disappear from the curriculum any time soon. So, it’s a question of what can be done to ensure pupil safety.
School rugby has been in the media spotlight recently with a leading sports science lecturer calling for scrums to be banned in children’s rugby. Dr Gethin Thomas, who has worked with Rugby Football Union in England, argues that children should not be in scrums until they are 13. Putting forward his recommendations to reduce injuries in the children’s game, Dr Thomas also proposed a similar age limit for lineouts, saying: “there's no reason to begin lineouts unless you can lift and individuals aren't strong enough to lift.”
Dr Thomas’ recommendations come shortly after World Rugby announced that changes could be made to the laws around rugby tackles to reduce the concussion risk.
Head Injury Risks in Other School Sports
Rugby is the obvious sport that springs to mind when discussing the concussion risks faced by young athletes, but there is growing concern about football too.
It’s the most widely-played sport in schools across the UK, but scientists have proved a link between repeated heading of footballs and brain injury. A study by an American University looked at women’s football – a growing sport in UK schools and one that is known to have the highest concussion rates among female athletes. They found that the forces generated by heading back goal-kicks were often similar to the force behind a boxer’s punch.
Awareness is also growing, therefore, around the brain injury risk associated with football, especially with the launch of the Jeff Astle Foundation earlier this year, a charity campaigning for more research into the long-term effects of repeated head trauma among footballers.
It’s important that schools and sports clubs recognise these risks, especially as children’s brains are developing. A new test to quickly discover concussion in young athletes can help coaches assess risks right away and take a child off the pitch if they are concussed, but more research is certainly needed to fully understand what is a growing concern for all parents whose children take part in contact sports in school.
Ken Brough is a senior personal injury solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.