Health Blog

Concussions in Rugby Possibly A Link to Cognitive Decline

Evidence of a link between concussion in rugby and the mental well-being of retired players continues to grow. Many former players are speaking publicly about their symptoms. A group of more than 200 ex-players is suing the Rugby Football League for failing to protect them from concussions during their rugby playing careers.

A study published in July 2021 by the Drake Foundation revealed that 23 percent of current elite rugby players suffer from brain damage. Also in July, the University of South Wales released a study showing that a player who plays just a single season of a sport like rugby that involves repetitive contact could result in a decline of cognitive functioning.

A newer study just released in early December 2021 by the UK Rugby Health Project at Durham University studied a group of 189 retired rugby players and found that many of them were suffering from more mental health issues than players in non-contact sports. Retired players who had suffered from several concussions in rugby were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, anger and sleep issues.

Karen Hind, the lead author of the study, noted that the consistent feedback she got from the rugby players she spoke with was that “when they were playing at the highest level they were very well looked after. They had all the medical support they needed, however, once they hit retirement there was nothing.”

Alix Popham is a well-known former player who experienced multiple concussions in rugby. He was diagnosed at age 40 with early-onset dementia. He was also diagnosed with “probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy.” The diagnosis is considered “probable” since it can only be confirmed by a post-mortem exam.

Popham talked to a lot of current rugby players who are struggling with mental health issues and have symptoms of brain damage. They are hesitant to talk to a professional within the organization about their symptoms or to get any tests because they are afraid that will impact their contracts and that they will lose work.

They are also hesitant to seek care outside of the organization. They generally have skewed ideas of what is available.

This means that many current and former rugby players are struggling in silence. They are folks who have given a lot to the sport, and now need care to be given back to them.

Popham strongly felt the need to help his fellow mental health sufferers. He established a foundation, Head for Change, which provides support to athletes, and families of athletes, who are living with degenerative brain diseases and mental health conditions caused by concussions in rugby.

Head for Change, working with the non-profit Beyond the White Line, and backed by the National Health System (NHS), provides free access to the mental health app Thrive. Thrive has a triage system and provides confidential and quick access to mental health support.

Many question why a private foundation is providing assistance to those who suffer from a concussion in rugby instead of the governing bodies and clubs. Popham says those entities are moving too slowly. He is concerned about those who are suffering right now, and also feels the problem is urgent and hopes the app will help prevent suicides.

American doctor, Bennet Omalu, who was the first to find evidence of a connection between mental degenerative disease and players of collision sports who suffered from one or more concussions, reminds athletes that the business of rugby governing bodies is not to provide healthcare. “Their business is to provide entertainment and make money.”

But there is progress. The Rugby Football Union just opened its Advanced Brain Health Clinic to provide assistance to retired rugby players who are between the ages of 30 and 55.

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