Today in New Zealand and around the world countless athletes will risk of long term brain disease, simply because coaches aren’t educated on how to manage a knock to the head.

Although progress is being made, examples of how not to manage head impacts can be found everywhere from Sunday afternoon social sports to the pinnacle of professional athletics. Take for instance Czechoslovakian snowboarder Šárka Pančochová’s spectacular fall in the Sochi Winter Olympics women’s slopestyle final.

On her second run, Pančochová caught an edge landing a jump, catapulting her head backwards into the snow. The result was a helmet cracking impact and a sickening rag-doll tumble in front of a hushed audience.  After lying motionless for a few seconds she came to and drunkenly stumbled to her feet with a little help medics, who gave her a cursory physical examination, before she stepped back into her bindings and slid down the second half of the course.

Pančochová didn’t attempt any more jumps, but just riding the last of the course was a show of stoicism that drew rapturous applause from the Soviet crowd. However, for anyone with an understanding of brain injuries, it was deeply unsettling viewing.

Any brain injury is bad news,

That’s why well tell people to wear a helmet, but thankfully brains are excellent at bouncing back – if you give them a chance.  If you don’t and the athlete has a second knock to the head, really bad things can to happen.

Repetitive concussions, especially within hours or days of the first head impact are disastrous. Evidence suggests that athletes who sustain multiple concussions in their careers, are likely to develop “chronic traumatic encephalopathy”(CTE), an ongoing brain malfunction that causes a progressive decline of memory and cognition, as well as depression, suicidal behaviour, poor impulse control, aggressiveness, parkinsonism, and, eventually, dementia.

CTE is thought to be most common in athletes who sustain a second head impact after they are allowed to ‘play on’ after a knock to the head. The second concussion has a cumulative effect on the brain, adding to the damage of the brain’s grey and white matter, causing cognitive impairment.

Consider this: If you sprained your ankle, would you try and run on it straight away, or even within a few days? A sprained ankle feels weak and swollen, and the ligaments are stretched and loose from the initial twisting injury. If you ‘played on’ and sprained it again, the ligaments would be loosened further, making you more likely to need surgery, rather than just some physio rehab. Your brain is the same: get concussed from hitting your head once? You need rehab, but you’ll make a full recovery. Hit your head twice in a row? You may be visiting the neurologist.

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