THE issue of the correct management of head injuries on the sports field has been brought to the forefront recently with several ex-professional rugby players, many only in their 40s, revealing that they are suffering with early onset dementia, most likely as a result of the repeated concussions during their playing careers.

The group allege these incidents were mismanaged, resulting in long term neurological damage.

Athletes from sports not usually associated with this level of player-to-player contact, for example cycling, have come forward with similar stories, highlighting the need for all sports to have a robust concussion policy.

The immediate symptoms of a concussion include headache, nausea, vomiting and visual disturbances. Less than 10 per cent will lose consciousness.The person’s cognitive abilities may be affected which is why it is vitally important, as advised by the leading UK charity Headway, “If in doubt, sit it out”. With adrenaline pumping, it is vitally important NOT to play on.

The good news is that after a single episode of concussion, with adequate rest and relaxation, most will recover within a few days to weeks.

However, repeated episodes of concussion, for example during a long career in sport, has been shown to cause significant changes to the structure and function of the brain, a condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The onset of disability may be insidious, with mild short term memory loss and minor lapses of judgement progressing to significant disability and the symptoms we recognise as dementia.

At the present time the only known way to prevent CTE is to avoid repetitive head injuries.

Although various sports have suggested ways of reducing the ferocity of the game, with rugby discussing implementing only below the waist tackles, this may not actually reduce the impact of force, or its effect on the individual.

No one can deny the benefits of exercise and sport, particularly team pursuits, on health and wellbeing and I would never seek to discourage anyone from enjoying such activities. However, it must be recognised that the brain is a beautifully sophisticated yet delicate organ and there is no such thing as a minor head injury. Adopting a “win at all costs” approach may come with significant cost down the line.