The growing link between contact sports and traumatic brain injury

Fri, 07 Oct 2022

Further evidence linking contact sports to brain injuries has been published, with research from the University of Glasgow finding professional rugby players were 15 times more likely to develop motor-neurone disease than the general population and more than 3 times as likely to be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  

The study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry compared the medical history of 412 male Scottish former international rugby players, aged over 30, against 1,236 individuals from the general population. Although the former rugby players lived longer on average and were less likely to die from respiratory diseases, 11.5% were diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease in the studied period compared to just 5.5% of the general population. Notably, players of all positions were equally likely to be diagnosed with a condition.

The research adds to growing scientific evidence of the risk contact sports and head injuries play. A 2019 study of former professional football players found they were 3.5 times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. Although the exact reason is unclear, there appears to be a tangible link between repetitive physical head contact and neurodegenerative injuries.

As the evidence grows, the duty of care that sports clubs and institutions owe their players to assess and manage risks will come under greater scrutiny. That is of particular relevance to youth players, who may be more at risk of suffering a traumatic brain injury as an adult.

Changes are already being implemented across world sport. In 2012, World Rugby brought in ‘head injury assessments’ to be conducted pitch-side on players suspected of suffering from concussion. In July 2022 World Rugby strengthened these assessments, increasing the ‘stand-down period’ from 7 days to 12 days, the consequence being a player is unlikely to be able to participate in the next match played.

In football, the FA introduced guidance in 2020 advising coaches against allowing heading in training matches for children aged 11 and under, recommending a gradual increase from the age of 12 to 16. However, a trial within the current season will assess the impact of removing heading for all children under 12 in England which, if successful, could lead to the banning of deliberate heading altogether for that age group from 2023.

What is clear is that as institutions become more aware of the potential risks, there will be a growing legal responsibility upon them to limit the harm players face. As the evidence mounts, we may see ex-professional and semi-professional players seeking compensation for traumatic brain injuries suffered later in life.

Harrison Burroughs spealises in Clinical Negligence and Personal Injury at No5 Barristers' Chambers.

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