Danger of head injuries increases as players become more powerful

Medical view

The brain is like a blancmange inside a wooden box. It has the consistency of set custard and is secured within a pool of fluid in the skull by veins no more substantial than those on the back of your hand. The arrangement works well until the box is hit. Then the brain gets scrambled.

Until recently concern about cumulative brain injury caused by blows to the head was focused on boxers, in whom repeated episodes of concussion are common over a long career. Now it is becoming clear that chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative disease of the brain – is affecting participants in other contact sports in which the blancmange is rattled, even if not concussed – including American football, ice hockey and wrestling.

Could the danger extend to rugby – league or union? Rugby players wear less padding than their US counterparts but it is unclear whether that makes them more vulnerable or less – by reducing the ferocity of the impacts. Unquestionably the dangers of rugby have risen as the size and weight of players has grown, reflected in the soaring injury rate.

In Australia the former rugby league player Shaun Valentine has become the first to pledge his brain to research after his death, following a series of seizures he has experienced since retiring. Brain damage in rugby is an issue that can no longer be ignored.

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