By Danielle Ford and Caitlin Zerafa.
The NRL’s announcement to suspend fines for breaching concussion rules has come on the same day that an AFL player walked away from the game over post-concussion health fears.
It’s conflicting reports like these giving many in Australian sports a headache.
Sport-related concussions are a growing health concern in Australia as they can affect athletes at any level of sport from the fulltime elite athlete, to the recreational junior athlete.
While most of the spotlight may be on concussions at a professional level, it’s an issue that is also dealt with in junior competitions played around the country.
On any given weekend thousands of Sunshine Coast children are out playing sport at their local clubs.
With these children facing potential injuries every weekend, medical professionals say it is important concussions are managed appropriately by sporting organisations.
Ex-Sunshine Coast resident Dean Allen received multiple concussions when playing junior level rugby league.
“I started playing league when I was 14 and received multiple knocks to the head while playing over the years,” he says.
Allen played for two different clubs over three years and commends them both on their management of his injuries.
“With both clubs I was removed from the field and continually monitored throughout the rest of the game and throughout the night,” he says.
Only once was he allowed to return to the field after a head knock, after medical staff had completely cleared him of concussion.
Allen also says the clubs took all head knocks very seriously and never rushed him back to playing.
“They continuously contacted me and wanted to receive updates on my status as they were very concerned for my well-being,” he says.
“Both clubs also required statements from doctors that I was fit to return to playing.”
Some medical experts, however, question the effectiveness of tests used to diagnose concussions in young athletes.
In a joint position statement from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and Australian Medical Association (AMA), AIS chief medical officer Dr David Hughes says concussion can be difficult to diagnose, particularly at a youth level.
“Children are the most vulnerable to severe damage to their brains from concussion as they are still developing,” he says.
The statement lists 22 possible symptoms of concussion, most of which children may not display right away.
It recommends children not return to playing for at least 14 days after a concussion, as young brains take longer to recover than fully developed brains.
It also highlights the importance of having a medical practitioner asses the player, advising all clubs to require a signed doctor’s certificate before letting a child return to play.
Most junior sporting organisations only have the standard medical procedures of their national governing bodies listed on their websites with no specific information relating to young players.
The AFL is the only football code in Australia with specific guidelines for young players, including a wide range of resources on their junior site targeted at players aged five to 17.
An AFL Juniors Sunshine Coast spokesman says they are given extensive content from the AFL, specially tailored to their young athletes.
“Every club has forms that have to be signed off before a player can come back and play after a concussion,” he says.
“They have to be signed by a medical professional and the child must be back at school before they can play again.
“If they are taken off during a game for suspected concussion they can’t go back on field that day even if it’s not a full-on concussion.”
He also points out a big part of the AFL’s concussion management is making sure coaches are training players how to tackle correctly.
“As part of the coaching certification a big emphasis is placed on how to train kids to tackle properly because this is the best way to prevent head injuries,” he says.
“Not only how to make a tackle properly but how to minimise the impact when tackled through the movement of your body.”
The AIS and AMA also highlight the need for more research into the prolonged effects of numerous concussions.
In the recent years, several professional athletes from around the world have retired early citing health concerns after receiving multiple concussions.
Allen says he understands the health concerns some players may have but for him it’s never been an issue.
“Honestly, I don’t worry about the effects of these injuries as I have had no ongoing issues as a result,” he says.
“All injuries were handled properly and on all occasions I was cleared of serious head injury.”
In response to the joint statement, the AIS and AMA have created a website that provides a wide range of information to help people understand more about concussion prevention, treatment and recovery.