NZ Rugby ‘taking action to reduce head impacts’ after brain disease risk study
New Zealand rugby said it would continue to take steps to minimize the effects of head contact after the publication of a Scottish study which showed elite rugby players were 2.5 times more at risk of brain disease than the general population.
The study – led by the University of Glasgow and made public this week – found that rugby players’ risk factor for motor neurone disease was 15 times higher than that of the general population, while the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease was three times higher.
Scottish researchers looked at details of the health and mortality of 412 former elite Scottish rugby players, compared to more than 1,200 from the wider population. Their information was tracked for 32 years beyond 30 years.
The researchers found that 47 (11.4%) of the former rugby players and 67 (5.4%) of the general population comparison group had a diagnosis of neurodegenerative disease related to the incident, based on the certificate of death, hospital admission or prescription information.
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New Zealand researchers have called for urgent action, with Dr Helen Murray, a researcher at the University of Auckland’s Brain Research Centre, saying on Wednesday that there must be “strategies to monitor and improve in a proactive the brain health of contact sport athletes during and after their sports career.”
NZ Rugby’s managing director of professional rugby and performance, Chris Lendrum, told Stuff on Thursday he welcomed the Glasgow study as “a valuable contribution to our understanding in this area”.
He said NZR experts were analyzing the report, which had only been out for 24-48 hours, but it was too early to “react to those specific assessments”.
“We need to find out more about it first, but it’s clear that the whole area is difficult, isn’t it?
“We proceeded cautiously and conservatively in professional and community games, assuming that there is a link or association between head contact and long-term neurodegenerative consequences.
“But clearly the science is still evolving.”
Lendrum said NZR still believed there were “tremendous benefits to playing rugby, or any sport, in terms of healthy lifestyles, fitness, physical well-being, well-being, to be mental and of social connection”.
But they were “not science deniers”.
“Obviously we’re concerned about the impact of head contact and concussions in the game, so what we’re trying to do is balance the tremendous benefits of playing the game that’s loved in our community with an appropriate response to science and risk, and to be careful in how we do it.”
Lendrum said NZR had this year introduced trial variations of national law in community play down to secondary school level. These included lowering the height of the tackle to the level of the sternum and preventing players from competing for the ball in the air, thus forcing them to stay on the ground during kicks.
He said they wanted to see “what impact these changes would have on the game, injury rates and safety.”
Information was still being collected, but “the first signs show that there has been good positive feedback on these initiatives”.
In 2021, NZ Rugby launched, in conjunction with World Rugby and the University of Auckland, a study called Kumanu Tāngata – The Aftermatch Project, aimed at researching the long-term health outcomes of approximately 12,000 former rugby players representative of New Zealand from 1950 to 2000 and cross-checked with results from “a much larger generation set of two million people”.
Lendrum said they were “trying to longitudinally examine the effects of playing a contact sport, rugby in our context”.
According to the University of Auckland’s website, the study – due to be completed in 2023 – will look at “long-term health and social outcomes, eg mortality, neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease”. [and] mental disorders associated with playing professional rugby”.
Initial results have been received, but a Stuff report in September said they were still being analyzed.
Lendrum said NZR had also established professional-level Head Injury Assessments (HIAs) and strict return-to-play protocols, as well as baseline testing. Blue cards had been issued to professional referees to allow them to dismiss players suspected of concussion.
“We’ve done a lot around prevention for a long time,” said Lendrum, citing the “world-leading” Rugby Smart injury prevention program, which had been in place and updated over the past 20 years.
He said the professional game had focused a lot on ‘loading’ – the workload of players in matches and in training – and the general management of player well-being.
“I think you’re starting to see the players themselves taking a really conservative and mature approach to dealing with the injuries that they’ve had,” he said, citing the examples of senior All Blacks Sam Whitelock and Beauden Barrett, who have both missed games with concussions this year.
Lendrum said both men “took steps when they were injured to make sure they were really right before coming back. Their self-assessment rather than being regulated for not playing was front and center decision-making there.
Lendrum said it was “horrible to see and hear about people suffering who have played our game”, or people “just in general in the community, because obviously there are many ways people can suffer. head injuries. Contact sport is one of them, but it’s not the only one”.
“We know it’s difficult and we know we don’t have a full scientific picture to work on yet, but we think we’re doing all we can based on what we know at the moment.
“But, we’re not science deniers, if there’s more the game can do, we want to do it, we want to be open to that.
“But the challenge is, and this study also says so, that further research exploring the interplay between head contact and neurodegenerative diseases is needed.
Lendrum saw the Glasgow study as “another piece of the puzzle towards a bigger picture”, but that was not the end of the story.
In the meantime, “what sports need to do is try to reduce head impact exposure and promote techniques or research or variations of the law to achieve that, and that’s what we’re trying to do. to do for several years”.
He said World Rugby had made player welfare its “number one priority” and that player welfare was part of NZR’s strategic plan.
“World Rugby looks like NZ Rugby is leading in this space,” Lendrum said. “We have always raised our hands for trials and done very good research in collaboration with our researchers and universities here.
“We want a future where the game is safe and enjoyable and that a large number of New Zealanders participate in, and learning as much as possible in this area is in line with that vision.”