Raising awareness about sports-related concussion

Lindsay Sullivan is a Postgraduate Scholar based at the School of Health Sciences at NUI, Galway. Her research is evaluating GAA players’ and coaches’ knowledge about sports-related concussion.

Sports-related concussion has recently become a hot topic in the media. This injury has plagued athletes of all age and skill levels, from those who compete at the grassroots level to those competing at the Olympic games. Although researchers have only just begun to understand how and why concussions are dangerous, it is becoming increasingly evident that concussions are associated with both short- and long-term health consequences; thus, fuelling the debate about the safety of contact sports, especially for youth.

During the Rio Olympics, concussion has once again captured media attention, as a result of a Dutch cyclist Annemiek van Vleuten who fell and suffered a severe concussion, and the British gymnast Ellie Downie who was unable to finish her routine after she experienced dizziness after falling on her head and neck. Downie was then allowed to compete on the next rotation, without being assessed for a concussion. This example highlights the need for increased concussion awareness across sports and competition levels.

The GAA is the largest sporting organisation in Ireland, and is considered one of the greatest amateur sporting associations in the world, being played by more than 100,000 athletes, in 2,500 sports clubs throughout the country. These sports are embedded within the Irish culture, and play an influential role in Irish society that extends far beyond the basic aim of promoting Gaelic games. The high physical contact elements of GAA sports coupled with the speed at which they are played leaves GAA athletes at considerable risk for injury, including sports-related concussion. At many GAA sporting events, medical professionals are rarely present. So it is of paramount importance that both athletes and coaches are educated about concussion, how to prevent them, and how to minimise the long-term consequences of concussion by restricting rushed return-to-play decisions.

My PhD research sets out to do just that, through the development, implementation and evaluation of a concussion education programme for youth GAA athletes and coaches.  This education programme focuses on the signs and symptoms, assessment and management of concussion injury, as well as changing concussion reporting behaviours. Not only that, but this research hopes to build a sports culture where athletes take steps to lower their chances of getting a concussion and recognise and report concussion symptoms so they can seek care and take time to recover.

Ultimately, results from my study will be used to establish an effective concussion prevention programme that can be utilised by GAA clubs and sport organisations throughout Ireland. In addition, results from this project may be utilised for future concussion policy development in Ireland at both the national level and within sporting organisations. Generating awareness of the potential short and long-term health consequences of concussion, coupled with the promotion of safer attitudes towards this injury, could minimise the number of players who return-to-play pre-maturely and promote a more safety-conscious sports culture in Ireland. I love that my research allows me to work to raise awareness about sports-related concussion amongst the GAA community, and to create an environment which encourages athletes to report concussion symptoms.