Your head on the line: understanding concussion

Reporter: Anna Harrington

Football players, staff and supporters are increasingly aware of the risks associated with sustaining multiple concussions.

Melbourne club the Hampton Rovers are taking part in a study with the potential to completely change our attitude to head injuries in football.

This story is part of a summer podcast series produced by journalism students from RMIT University. Read more about the project.


ANNA HARRINGTON: Most of the time you don’t even see it coming. The crunch as a body hits your shoulder. The thud as your head hits the turf. The gasp as the air is forced from your lungs. It takes a second to realise you’ve hit the floor and another to see the world around you. Your head is spinning and, still shaking from the impact, you work yourself onto one knee. Then you get up and run to another contest, put your body on the line again, put your head on the line again.

HAMPTON FOOTBALLER: It’s hard, I mean, like, you want to play the game and you want to play well and you’ve got to be fierce and attacking on the footy, so you kind of put that ahead of your safety sometimes.

ANNA HARRINGTON: While such a kamikaze attitude may be commonplace on the footy field, this Hampton Rover is one player helping Deakin University take a closer look at head injuries within the sport. Senior Psychology Lecturer Dr Alan Pearce is currently running studies looking at both the short and long term effects of football-related concussions.

This particular study required the involvement of an entire football team and Victorian Amateur Football Association club Hampton Rovers stepped up to the plate. The players completed a combination of tests during the club’s pre-season, with some returning to the lab for repeat efforts throughout the year. Dr Pearce runs me through the study’s showpiece test.

DR ALAN PEARCE: So this is the muscle working and then what we do, is we stimulate this with a click. And then about 20 milliseconds later you get the twitch in the hand and that’s this waveform here and that represents the excitability pathways. So they’re the nerves that make the muscle move and then we get this period of silence, this sort of flatline before the EMG comes back and this represents the suppression – the nerves that suppress a muscle from working. So what we have, is we have a nice balance between excitation and inhibition.

ANNA HARRINGTON: Dr Pearce hopes to determine a standard nerve suppression time within the general population. In addition to this benchmark, the Hampton Rovers tests work to establish individual player standard suppression times.

DR ALAN PEARCE: All things equal, if they’ve never been concussed before in their life you know, and they’re sitting in a 155 then we know, okay if they start to, if they get concussed during the season then if they’re at 180-190 we can go “alright, it’s not quite what they normally show.”

ANNA HARRINGTON: Dr Pearce’s study also aims to create a definitive physical test indicating the presence of concussion and in doing so, determining whether a player is required to leave the field.

DR ALAN PEARCE: Rather than a blood marker, we have a physical marker as well so we can quantify it together and say “yeah look, basically this test, this test, this test. You can’t go back on.”

ANNA HARRINGTON: Our Hampton subject also believes the introduction of a widely-accepted concussion test would result in an improved player attitude towards the treatment of head injuries.

HAMPTON FOOTBALLER: I mean if we have these steps in place and the tests, if they can then determine you have a concussion or an injury of similar sort then you can’t really argue with the results can you? You need to really, I guess, just grin and bear it and cop it.

ANNA HARRINGTON: Instead of running on to the next contest, you make your way to the bench. This week, you’re going to the doctors for tests. It’s likely you’ll miss one match but they’ll monitor your progress over the next two weeks, just to be sure. This may not be reality now but one day, it could be.

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