Head knocks are considered part and parcel of contact sport, an unavoidable consequence of playing such a physical game.
In the past, after a serious head-knock the toughest and most passionate players would dust themselves off and try to return to the field of play, no matter how serious the injury.
But more recently, a greater understanding of concussion has forced us to reconsider how seriously we treat incidents that cause damage to the head.
Earlier this year, Margaret Varcoe – the sister of Collingwood Magpies player Travis Varcoe – was concussed after a clash of heads in the Adelaide Football League women’s grand final.
She walked off the field feeling dazed, fell into a coma in the locker room and died four days later.
In the AFL, Brisbane’s Jack Frost and St Kilda’s Koby Stevens were both forced to retire from football in 2018 after repeated concussions.
These are extreme examples, but they illustrate the potentially serious consequences of concussion.
So what is concussion, and what can be done to minimise the damage it can cause?
Case Study – Billy Carberry
Horsham’s Billy Carberry has been concussed twice in the past three seasons, something he said has certainly made him more aware of the risks that come with a knock to the head.
“This year we were playing against Ararat in Ararat and I got cleaned up, but I don’t remember a thing,” he said.
“Two years previously I got knocked out quite badly as well. I spent the night in hospital that time and had something like a fit in hospital.”
Carberry is 22 now and said before his first concussion, he knew nothing about the seriousness of the injury.
“I really didn’t have a clue,” he said. “After the first one I was quite aggressive, couldn’t see straight and actually tried to go back out on the ground. I really didn’t know the impact it could have on you and that was the most surprising bit.”
Carberry missed eight weeks of football after his first concussion, and two weeks this year.
Since his first concussion, Carberry has done his fair share of research and spoken to doctors about concussions. He said the Horsham Demons have also been a great help.
“I have done a bit of research since and you do learn a lot from the doctors,” he said. “When you get a knock to the head you can tell whether it was just a bump or a full on concussion.
“I was pretty lucky after my first concussion that the football club took head knocks really seriously. They went out of their way to learn a lot more about concussions. It comes down to the player but the club too and when it happened the second time they knew exactly what to do and how to help me.
“I listened to them and the doctors and I went through tests if they give me the all clear I’ll play.”
Carberry said he is considering wearing a helmet for the 2019 season, but the ruckman won’t be changing his style of play.
“Potentially a helmet is on the cards. When your parents and partner start to get a bit anxious then you start thinking about it too,” he said.
“I’ll still play the same way, there’s no difference about that. If another one happens we will just have to reassess then and what’s best going forward.”
Do helmets work?
President of Wimmera league club Minyip-Murtoa Scott Arnold said the club has enforced a policy to make all under-12s and under-14s footballers wear a helmet.
“We think when they are at young, it’s in our duty of care to help them with their personal safety,” Arnold said.
“There’s no detriment for them wearing a helmet and it removes a stigma for when they get older and if they have to wear helmet.
“Personally I had to wear a helmet and I know there was a bit of stigma. It’s not the norm in football and sometimes it’s hard for parents with kids when they do have issues with concussions and getting them to try and wear a helmet.
“We think the policies are a proactive step and it’s been a long standing thing for quite a while.”
Unfortunately, wearing a helmet might not be the solution according to director of emergency services at Wimmera Base Hospital Dr Peter Kas.
Dr Kas said concussion is actually caused by the brain moving inside the skull, something that can’t be stopped by a helmet.
“I think in football it is going to be very difficult to avoid,” Dr Kas said.
“A soft bit of head-wear protects surface injury, but it won’t protect from the head stopping suddenly and the brain bouncing around.
“The word concussion actually comes from Latin and it means ‘to shake violently’ – it is the brain shaking inside the head which causes the damage.
“Apart from banning full contact sport – which they will never do – there’s not much you can do.”
Fortunately, Dr Kas said there were still a number of steps players can take to minimise the damage caused by concussion. He urged players to always see a medical professional after suffering a knock to the head.
“My view on concussion in sport is that you need to come off the field and not play again for the rest of the day,” Dr Kas said.
“If it’s mild, players can probably get assessed by a doctor the next day – but they need to go and see somebody.
“The only treatment for concussion is rest, so most will be fine within a week or two. But the important thing is to recognise the problem and take it seriously – it has the potential to have some dire consequences.
“If they’re concerned at all that they’re not feeling right, then go and seek emergency help. Don’t hesitate.”