Concussion in sport: what are the new protocols? Symptoms of concussion and new guidelines explained

The government urges athletes to ‘if in doubt, sit them out’

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The government has recently published the first UK-wide guidelines for athletes in grassroots sports on concussion. The caution is being advised with the message: “If in doubt, sit them out.”

These new guidelines are in response to growing concerns about the potential for neurodegenerative conditions among former football and rugby players. Research has already shown that these players are more likely to develop dementia or Parkinson’s than the general population as a result of repeated blows to the head.

While this guidance is for all, it is specifically aimed at grassroots sports where medics are usually not on site to treat suspected concussions. It has also been specified that for those researching the degenerative brain disease, it’s about managing the safe return to playing after head traumas rather than deterring people from playing.

Professor Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow, has said that one day the goal is to have saliva or blood tests for concussion: “We don’t have it yet, and we’re working hard. We made a lot of progress the last few years that would have been unthinkable before then. But we have... some way to go.”

Here is all you need to know about the new guidance and how to best spot a suspected concussion...

What do the guidelines say?

The guidelines have advised against phone and computer use for at least the first 48 hours after a suspected concussion to “improve recovery”. They add: “Anyone with concussion should generally rest for 24-48 hours but can undertake easy activities of daily living and walking, but most avoid intense exercise, challenging work or sport.

“They can progress through the graduated return to activity (education/work) and sport programme. Anyone with symptoms that last longer than 28 days should be assessed and managed by an appropriate healthcare professional.”

Those with signs of concussion are advised to contact a GP or call 111 within 24 hours. Additionally, a return to competition within 21 days should be avoided for those who have been concussed.

Former Rugby international Simon Shaw has been a strong advocate for research into concussion in sportFormer Rugby international Simon Shaw has been a strong advocate for research into concussion in sport
Former Rugby international Simon Shaw has been a strong advocate for research into concussion in sport

What are the symptoms of concussion?

According to NHSinform, here are some of the most common symptoms. It’s also written that if you develop any of the following signs of symptoms, you should visit your nearest A&E department:

  • Loss of consciousness, however brief
  • Memory loss, such as not being able to remember what happened before or after the injury
  • Persistent headaches since the injury
  • Changes in behaviour, such as irritability or being easily distracted - particularly common in children under five
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness that occurs when you would normally be awake
  • Loss of balance or problems walking
  • Difficulties with understanding what people are saying
  • Difficulty speaking, slurred speech
  • Problems with reading or writing
  • Vomiting
  • Problems with vision, such as double vision
  • Loss of power in part of the body, such as weakness in arm or leg
  • Clear fluid leaving nose or ears
  • Sudden deafness in one or both ears
  • Any wound to the head or face

What’s been said?

Professor James Calder - a surgeon who has previously operated on football stars, including Gareth Bale and Neymar - was the chair of the group who drafted the guidelines. Speaking to Sky News, Calder said: “We know that sports and exercise is good for both mental health and physical health.

“We need to have some guidance, should a person have a concussive event. And there hasn’t been UK-wide guidance. Scotland introduced some guidance several years ago seems appropriate that we actually produce UK-wide guidance that can be rolled out through to all different types of sports.”

The former England and British and Irish Lions rugby player Simon Shaw, who has since been a strong campaigner on concussion, also told Sky News: “I was playing high contact sport. I was prepared to take the risks, whether that’s a dislocated shoulder or broken ankle or whatever there was.

“There was obviously a lot of bravado in our sport. I tried to stay on the pitches as often as possible, but I was acutely aware that there could be problems in the future. Just making sports, whatever the risk of concussion, a much safer place is very important for the health and wellbeing of the nation.”