Concussions at the Rugby World Cup

Concussion is proving a big headache for players and managers at the Rugby World Cup - but what does the science say?
29 September 2015

Interview with 

Ginny Smith


Is rugby a risk for brain injury and concussion...

Ginny - This week, the Rugby World Cup has been going and there's been lots of talk about that. So, I've been looking at something that is not so positive about sport and that is concussions. So, the Chief Medical Officer, Martin Raftery has actually called for changes to be made to the rules of rugby because of these concussion problems that are happening. So, I was looking at, well, what's the science of concussion, what do we know about it, and what would we need to change to help prevent these things from happening?

Kat - So, what do you find? As an ex-rugby player, I'm intrigued. I've smacked my head on the floor a few times.

Chris - I thought you're going to say Ginny is an ex-rugby player!

Kat - I'm an ex-rugby player!

Ginny - No, I've never played rugby, but what's really interesting is we don't really understand what's happening during concussion. What we know is that if your head is hit against something or moved very quickly, your brain can effectively slosh around inside it and bash into your skull. That's not a good idea because you effectively sort of bruise the brain. It can swell and then that can cause more problems as it presses onto the skull. But one concussion doesn't generally do people too much harm. As long as they go away and look after themselves, they can generally get better from it. What can be a real problem is if you get another concussion while you're still recovering from the first one and then you can get what's called second impact syndrome. And that can be really, really bad news. It can even be fatal. But we don't really understand what it is about that second impact that's so dangerous and we also don't know how long the gap is before it's safe for you to have another head injury.

Kat - So, how are people trying to figure this out? What's going on now?

Ginny - There's lots of different research going on. Dr. Michael Grey from the University of Birmingham has been looking for biomarkers in the blood and the urine that might signal that you are still recovering from your concussion, so that you can maybe even do a blood test or a urine test and say when it was safe for a player who had suffered a concussion to go back on.

Kat - Knowing rugby players, they don't need much encouragement to pee in a bottle.

Ginny - But again, we don't fully understand the molecular process of what's going on either. So, there's other research going on at Trinity College Dublin with Dr. Matthew Campbell who's looking at the blood vessels and how they're affected during a head injury. And he's been discovering that actually, it might be that the blood-brain barrier becomes a little bit leaky after the brain has been hit and that might be what's causing lots of the problems. If that was the case, that would sort of open up a whole new area of research.

Kat - So perhaps by the time we get to the next Rugby World Cup, we'll have a few answers about how to make the game safer!


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