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Better management of sports injuries thanks to Advanced Concussion Unit
Author: Frieda le Roux
Published: 14/11/2017

​​What does the Springbok Captain Eben Etzebeth and his All Black counterpart Beauden Barret, have in common? Both were in the news for suffering from concussion in the past month. Add to that the names of Warren Whitely, Martin du Toit, Poerie van Rooyen and Jaco Coetzee – who have all had to leave the rugby field for some time in October after getting a hard bump to the head. And earlier this year the rugby career of Maties captain Beyers de Villiers was cut short after he was also diagnosed with serious concussion.

That is why the creation of the Advanced Concussion Unit at the Institute for Sport and Exercise Medicine (ISEM) holds good news not only for rugby players, but all other contact sports, including hockey and boxing, where players often suffer a blow to the head.

“Ninety-nine per cent of concussions heal perfectly,” says Dr Pierre Viviers, Senior Director of the SU Campus Health Services (CHS), who is also involved with ISEM. According to Pierre the risk is low as long as the evidence are being followed. “But if you suspect a concussion, the player must be removed from the field.”

Pierre often helps at international games as one of five medical doctors who must decide whether a player suffered a blow that could mean concussion and should leave the field. With his colleagues at CHS they also do a lot of social impact work, such as helping out at the recent Klapmuts Sevens Tournament, to help with the treatment of injuries such as concussion.

It is this ‘suspect and remove’ principle that will hopefully get a big push in the next year when Pierre and his colleague Prof Wayne Derman, director of ISEM, will make a big effort to empower coaches – from schools’ level – with better training in recognising and managing concussion.

A concussion programme was introduced at the University in 2003 already, with recreational and more professional players benefiting. “We see between 300 and 350 concussions per year. This gives us access to very valuable research information.” The Advanced Concussion Unit will use this type of information to understand and manages this potentially very dangerous state even better. The Unit does not only want to improve determining the physiological recovery of players, but also put concussion treatment modalities in place to shorten the timeline of more complicated injuries. Several overseas universities (Washington in the USA, Calgary in Canada and Bath in the UK) have already indicated that they would like to form part of the research effort.

According to Pierre concussions are very dangerous among teenagers and adolescents, where the brain is still growing. “Players are often back on the field too soon. If they then suffer from another concussion, it’s not a new injury, but an existing one that is worsened.” And often the knowledge to manage concussions safely lack on school and club level.

Dr Leslie van Rooi, Senior Director of Transformation and Social Impact says Pierre – and Prof Wayne Derman – show that research can have a wider impact, also on the different communities around us. “By doing what we do daily we can have a positive effect on the lives of sport stars and young upcoming athletes.”