Protecting the head and the game

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By William Hoganjames lawson

It is a sudden movement causing the brain to spin like jelly in a bowl. The brain crashes and smashes into the poorly protected skull leading to blurred vision and a severe headache. It is the most worrying injury in international sport according to leading doctors. At times it is unstoppable, unavoidable and unpreventable. It is concussion.

The sickening sight of concussion has always been present in elite sport such as ice hockey, horse racing and the AFL. These sporting codes have traditionally brushed aside the severity of a knock to the head. Athletes seem to recover whether it was hours, days or weeks later they still recovered. In the AFL, concussion was seen as an act of bravery that you would push through like a soldier in battle and continue to fight with your mates. The overwhelming consensus now is if you play concussed you are foolish for not taking care of the most vital organ in the human body.

The game of Australian Rules football is faster paced and more demanding on the body thanever before. Players are expected to run, jump, turn and tackle with 100% effort and efficiency. The game is complicated and confusing but that is why we love it.

Injuries have always been a part of sport and football is no different. As the game has developed and evolved, so has the type and severity of injuries. From torn cruciate ligaments to broken legs these battered and bruised athletes have and always will have a place in this game. That is the reason we have leading sports physicians and doctors such as Peter Larkins and John Orchard, to study the game and the injuries that occur to ensure there is a balance of looking after players’ welfare and maintaining the excitement that the game delivers.

Dr Larkins, an avid lover of the game wants to maintain as much contested football and brute force as possible. But stresses the concerning nature of head injuries is more of a problem than doctors originally thought. It has only be
en in the last nine to ten years that doctors have started to understand the brain more clearly to realise concussions and knocks to the head can have a more debilitating effect on players in the short and long term. Larkins says reducing the stigma related to being soft because a player could not return after being concussed was the first step in changing the perception of head injuries.

“The problem was, if you copped a knock on the head you had to be brave.”

“If you couldn’t remember the last half of the game, that was great because it meant you supported your team.”

Larkins who had a serious realisation about concussion after an International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in 2010 regarding new information surrounding the brain believes the hardest task is that we still do not know enough about the delicate organ.

“We know about livers and we know about kidneys, we know about knees.”

“There is no computer like the brain though, it’s a very interesting electrical circuit.”

“And we are talking about young brains having multiple concussions, players like Jimmy Bartel, Daniel Bell and Justin Koschitzke…it’s quite concerning.”

The AFL has always been receptive to change. In 2013 it brought in the controversial ‘sliding rule’ to prevent players taking out another player’s legs from under after Swans speedster Gary Rohan famously broke his leg. The AFL has brought in a number of rules to attempt to prevent head injuries such as the concussion test and eliminating head high bumping. And from this week umpires will now start penalising players ducking their heads in tackles to protect the neck and spine. However the lack of patterns in concussion occurring in similar fashion, makes preventing the injury much more difficult.

The biggest problem surrounding concussion in the AFL is the fact that it can occur so trivially. Larkins says that the slightest knock or shake to the head can cause a minor concussion and because of the lack of knowledge surrounding the brain, doctors are unsure how threatening a couple of minor concussions actually are.

“You have a big brain like a bowl of jelly that sits in water…if I shake that jelly, the brain smashes against the side of the bony skull.”

“So spinning the head causes that shaking inside, so the slightest little glance when going into a contest can cause concussion.”

For amateur football where there are no leading doctors present to test concussion, the task is to make society aware when a player should or should not go back on the ground.

Monash Blues football player James Lawson suffered his first concussion earlier this year when his head collided with the ground after being heavily tackled. Lawson was left stranded when his arms were pinned back by an opposition player and could not protect his head from smashing into the ground. Lawson described the concussion as a series of blurry and spinning spells in his head.

“I can’t really remember what happened. I remember getting up and my head being dizzy and hurting.”

Lawson said he never considered going back on the ground as he failed the concussion test undertaken by the club trainers meaning he was not allowed to return even if he began to recover minutes later. Lawson said he struggled to understand the questions being asked in the test and could not answer any of the questions properly.

“I went through a few tests, some counting ones and basic questions about myself…most of them I couldn’t answer as I had forgotten or couldn’t comprehend numerical questions.”

Lawson who returned to football five weeks after his initial concussion due to rib injuries also sustained by the sling tackle believes it would take a few more concussions in his lifetime for him to give up footy but understands how sensitive the brain is.

“If my doctor does not want me to continue I probably wouldn’t.”

Whether it is a brute tackle or a clash of the heads, concussion can happen so simply it is hard to fathom a solution to totally eradicate the problem.

The AFL will continue to listen to doctors and prevent as much damage to the head as possible as well as maintaining the spectacle that sees thousands attend each week. What is certain is that one little knock, one tiny bump can have an effect on our brains and we must not take the crash and smash of the jelly lightly.

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