Rugby concussions linked to dementia

Date published: August 3 2013

The first linked case of dementia related to playing rugby has been reportedly discovered by a brain injuries expert in the UK.

The first linked case of dementia related to playing rugby has been reportedly discovered by a brain injuries expert in the UK.

The report, written by Dr Willie Stewart, has suggested that between one or two players that compete in the annual Six Nations Championship are susceptible to developing the condition.

Examining the brain tissue of a former player, the neurologist discovered that there were higher levels of abnormal proteins, commonly found as a result of head injuries, than were found in a retired amateur boxer suffering from punch drunk syndrome, otherwise known as dementia pugilistica.

Speaking about the odds of a concussed player going on to develop dementia, Stewart advised that maximum caution should be taken if any symptoms of concussion were present at any given time.

“What we are finding now is that it is not just in boxers. We are seeing it in other sports where athletes are exposed to head injury in high levels,” said Dr Stewart to the BBC.

“Those sports include American football, ice hockey and also now I have to say I have seen a case, the same pathology, in somebody whose exposure was rugby.

“What the numbers are, what proportion of people who play rugby, how often you may have to get concussed, how long after you may develop problems, these are questions we can't answer.

“We would suspect it would be a fairly low number, but not a zero number. Let's say it is 1% of people who are playing rugby at international level may go on to develop long-term problems.

“In any Six Nations weekend that is one or two players who may go on and develop a dementia they wouldn't otherwise have been exposed to. That is a realistic number.

“People are beginning to think 'here is somebody with early onset dementia who may have played rugby and I've heard something about head injuries and I wonder if these are linked'.

“So there are other cases that I am aware of internationally, but this is the first complete case.

“What we are really starting to worry about now is the long term problems, the things that might happen 10 or 15 or 20 years down the line. Has that injury to the brain perhaps led to longer term damage?

“The general advice for a concussion is if in doubt, sit it out. So at all levels, if you think there has been a concussion the player should be removed and not expose himself to risk.

“There is a risk that a second head injury, coming within a short space of time and before the brain has properly recovered, can be much more severe and cause more problems and more symptoms.

“There is undoubted evidence that people will try to play on. That is something we would really like to discourage as much as possible.

“Just as we discourage people from playing on with a damaged knee, even more so we would really try not to have people carry on with a damaged brain.”