Rugby players have long-term concussion risk even after retirement

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In a landmark study, scientists have discovered that the repercussions of multiple concussions rugby players suffer during their careers persist even after retirement.

The University of South Wales’ Neurovascular Research Laboratory conducted a study to gauge the long-term effects of recurrent concussions on rugby players.

Their findings, shared in the journal Experimental Physiology, unveil concerning details about retired players’ lingering concussion symptoms and diminished cognitive abilities.

These health issues could potentially make them more susceptible to dementia.

What Was Uncovered?

Comparing retired rugby players against individuals of the same age, educational background, and fitness level who had never been involved in contact sports or had concussions, researchers made a significant discovery.

The retired players had reduced blood flow to the brain.

This reduction was linked to decreased availability of nitric oxide, a chemical essential for maintaining proper brain function by helping arteries relax and facilitate the flow of oxygen and glucose.

The research’s lead, Professor Damian Bailey, stated, “It’s a game-changer. This is the first study showing the long-term brain risks of the aggressive physical encounters in rugby union.”

Implications Beyond Rugby

The relevance of this study isn’t limited to just rugby. It resonates with other contact sports that involve regular concussions, including soccer, boxing, American football, hockey, and horse racing.

This research aligns with Professor Bailey’s efforts in crafting the UK’s first Concussion Guidelines for Grassroots Sport.

These guidelines, developed alongside the UK Government and the Sport and Recreation Alliance, intend to recognize, handle, and prevent head injuries in various sports.

Professor Bailey also voiced concerns about players’ lack of awareness regarding concussions. “Many kept playing even when they had clear concussion symptoms during their active careers,” he noted.

The Methodology

In this study, the researchers, including Dr. Thomas Owens, analyzed various indicators of brain health in 20 retired rugby players who had played for over two decades.

These were contrasted with 21 people without any history of contact sports or concussions. The study did have its limitations, primarily relying on players’ memories of past concussions, which may not always be accurate.

The results, while concerning, also highlight the need for larger and more comprehensive studies to delve deeper into the issue, factoring in other post-retirement lifestyle changes that might impact cognitive health.

Looking Ahead

The team plans to widen their research to include recently retired players, seeking to identify the exact moment cognitive decline intensifies.

There’s also interest in studying athletes from various contact sports who may have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a dementia type linked with repetitive brain injuries.

Moreover, the researchers are keen on investigating potential brain health differences between male and female athletes and exploring potential protective measures such as brain cooling and specialized antioxidant treatments.

Final Thought

The world of sports has long celebrated the thrilling physical feats of athletes. Yet, this study serves as a stark reminder of the often invisible, long-term toll contact sports can exact on the brain.

The findings underline the urgency of understanding, preventing, and treating sports-related head injuries.

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The study was published in Experimental Physiology.

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