Something needs to be done, NOW

Aviva Premiership Rugby 2014/15 Northampton Saints v Wasps Franklin's Gardens, Northampton, United Kingdom - 27 Mar 2015

After receiving four huge blows to his head recently, the decision to rest Welsh rugby star George North for a month seems like a good one, especially with the increasing worries surrounding concussion in contact sports. Whilst I am all in agreement that he should take time out of the game, the figure given for the recovery time baffles me.

Despite all the recent hype, no-one really knows what concussion is. I’m not just talking about the generic population; even leading experts still don’t have a clear definition. Type ‘concussion’ into any search engine and you will get a vast array of interpretations, symptoms and even causes. I have even found one website which claims that concussion is the ‘most minor type’ of brain injury. Try telling that to the family of Jeff Astle, the former footballer whose death can be attributed a degenerative brain condition probably caused my multiple concussions during his career.

There are a vast array of reasons as to why there is so little understanding, but the key one is that there is no obvious indicator. It’s not like a broken bone or ruptured ligament, injuries which are visible to the naked eye or on a scan; concussion is a hidden injury which requires the sufferer to communicate exactly what is going on inside their head. As well as this, most of the symptoms – the NHS list fourteen –  that are associated with it also crossover with other problems, whilst the injury is highly individualistic in nature – each concussion is different from the next and there is no consistency in terms of both symptoms and recovery time.

This is why I think North’s prognosis is ridiculous; there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that he will be fine in exactly a month. He may need longer to recover; he may need less, we just don’t know. The RFU used to recommend that all concussed players have a minimum of three weeks off, but this was scrapped as it became clear there was no research which supported this. Instead, North’s coaching team should take the approach adopted by fellow rugby star Mike Brown, who has stated that he is going to take as much time off as he needs until he is symptom free. Whilst his fans may not appreciate this – he may be out for the rest of the season – it is definitely the way to approach the injury at the current moment in time.

Nonethless, the fact that Brown and North are prepared to miss crucial games to recover is extremely positive. It finally shows that rugby union is taking concussion seriously. The problem is, though, that this realisation is not being transferred to the general population. I am pretty sure that I would be right in thinking that most of you reading this have very little familiarity with all matters related to concussion and that you may have even learned something by reading this. There’s nothing wrong with that though; there is nothing and no-one in place to make us aware of the dangers of concussion. The focus for politicians and the media in particular is on obesity, which is fair enough given the serious implications it could have. However, I believe there should be more of a focus given to other serious problems such as concussion so the population are aware of how to prevent and deal with them too.

What is even worse, however, is that our doctors also have no clue regarding the diagnosis and treatment of concussion. Whilst it is difficult to be certain that an individual is suffering from concussion, it is better to be safe than sorry and assume they are. However, when I was checked out in A&E for my fourth concussion in seven years, I was told there was nothing wrong with me and sent home. A few days later I took myself back to hospital as I was still suffering but was told to just rest and it would clear up in a few days. It took 13 weeks before I was completely symptom-free. These are the people we trust with our lives, yet they still allow this to happen. It’s ridiculous and something needs to change.

I personally wish North a speedy recovery and hope to see him back playing for his country before long. Fortunately for him, he is in the best hands as a professional in a sport with arguably the best concussion knowledge and protocols. For the rest of us, the only thing we can hope for is that we don’t get concussion because, if we do, it’s highly likely that we won’t get the help we need.

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