Stars from a variety of impact sports are set to attend the first Sports Concussion Research Ball at Wests New Lambton on Saturday July 29, raising funds for concussion studies undertaken at the Hunter Medical Research Institute by neuropsychologist Dr Andrew Gardner.
Special guests include Knights legends Andrew Johns and Paul Harragon OAM, along with jockey Libby Hopwood whose career was ended by concussion sustained in a serious race fall.
Dr Gardner, co-director of the John Hunter Hospital Sports Concussion Clinic, hopes to purchase new digital technology for measuring cognition and agility as a high-tech alternative to current pencil-and-paper tests.
“We test functions like memory, concentration, reaction time and problem solving then look for discrepancies between the athlete’s pre-season and post-concussion scores,” Dr Gardner says.
“Sports people are usually highly motivated to get back onto the field so there are concerns about so-called ‘sandbagging’ – in other words, purposely performing poorly in the baseline test so they don’t have to do quite as well after a concussion.
“If we can find more sensitive tests it will make it safer in the case where an athlete says they’ve recovered but we’re noticing cognitive issues, or there have been some accumulative concussions that we’re not quite picking up.”
It comes as sport governing bodies, coaches, players and parents become increasingly diligent about managing concussion, as highlighted by recent high-profile cricket injuries to Australian Test opener Matthew Renshaw and wicketkeeper Peter Nevill.
Over summer, Dr Gardner’s clinic has been assisting basketball players, jockeys, soccer players and netballers, along with BMX and skateboard riders, however winter is the peak period with rugby league and union.
“The clinic is important to our research because we don’t just manage the patients from a clinical perspective, we also record the data for our ongoing studies,” Dr Gardner adds.
“What we know from working closely with the Newcastle Rugby League competition, for example, is that each club gets around five or six concussions per year. We’ve been conducting a study with one team using a patch [X2 Biosystems] that’s placed just behind the player’s ear to measure G forces.
“Pilot data suggests that the majority of impacts recorded last season were between 10-20 Gs, however we did have several incidents of 50 Gs that need further validation. This gives us a strong foundation to build on so, in coming years, we’ll be among the world leaders in the field.”
The Ball on Saturday July 29 (starting 6.30pm) is aiming to raise $100,000, with up to 300 seats available. It will include a silent auction of memorabilia from the Knights, NRL and ARU.
Libby Hopwood remembers nothing of a four-horse race fall in 2014 that ended her riding career and claimed the life of a fellow female jockey.
The 30-year-old’s dreams of returning to race riding were shattered after failing several neuro-psychological examinations. She continues to suffer balance issues, fatigue, spatial difficulties and attention deficit.
Now an expert racing commentator with Sky Racing, Libby is attending the Sports Concussion Research Ball to help raise awareness about the pitfalls of sports concussion. Globally, horse racing has among the highest concussion rates of all sports.
“People don’t seem to appreciate how serious it is. For example, one thing that drives me crazy is seeing Facebook posts of people riding their horse without a helmet,” she says.
“Since my accident I’ve had so many people come up to me and say ‘you’re just concussed, you should be fine’. They can’t understand why I can’t go back to racing, so there is a stigma surrounding concussion in Australia.”
Libby underwent rehabilitation after her accident and felt sufficiently well to return to racing until given the task of balancing on a foam board. “The doctor said that if I could walk on that I was OK to go, but I just couldn’t balance on it. That was when I realised this was something more serious.”
Libby suffered her first concussion at the age of 17 after being bucked from a show-jumping horse, while on another occasion she struck her head on the racing gates when her horse reared. With lingering memory lapses, she has developed strategies such as taking a photo of where her car is parked and writing commentary notes for on-air work.
* Dr Gardner is an NHMRC research clinician working as a neuropsychologist for Hunter New England Health. He is also a co-director of the Sport Concussion Clinic at John Hunter Hospital, researching in conjunction with HMRI’s Brain and Mental Health Program. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.