New research aims to cut the recovery time for concussions by half

Ex Blues player and former All Black Steve Devine is still living with the effects of his some 40 plus concussions.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFFEx Blues player and former All Black Steve Devine is still living with the effects of his some 40 plus concussions.

New data, collected both here and abroad, suggests mild exercise, as opposed to the traditional method of rest, can dramatically improve brain function and increase the chemicals responsible for repairing injured brain tissue.

New Zealand Rugby has welcomed the new research aimed at tackling the “biggest issue facing world sport” that was recently discussed in Napier by the world’s leading brain injury experts.

“New Zealand Rugby supports active recovery and welcomes all treatment methods that focus on improving player welfare with regards to brain injury,” an NZR spokesperson said.

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It’s a huge breakthrough in a field under increasing levels of scrutiny, and this will essentially slash recovery times in half according to former Blues’ doctor turned concussion expert, Stephen Kara.

Concussion sufferers are now being told to exercise at 80 per cent of their maximum capability, be it on a treadmill or a brisk walk around the block, in the days following a head knock, instead of simply “taking it easy” for a few days, such as the traditional method of treatment.

Devine assisted from the field by Dr Stephen Kara.
SUPPLIEDDevine assisted from the field by Dr Stephen Kara.

They are put through a series of cognitive and balance based tests before and after exercise, the latter showing vast improvements and is now widely considered “the gold standard” in concussion treatment, Kara said.

Once a person can display they are symptom-free for three days, they could return to full contact play, typically after 12-14 days, Kara said. But only after a doctor medically cleared them. World Rugby’s mandatory stand down period is a minimum of three weeks after a concussion (23 days for players aged 19 and under).

The Napier conference also hosted Professor Ciaran Bolger, a top neurosurgeon from Ireland, who spoke glowingly about active recovery methods being implemented in New Zealand. 

But there wasn’t always such a microscope on brain injury in sport, and there is still no hard and fast number when it comes to answering the question of how many is too many concussions.

Kara, who works at Axis Sports Medicine Specialists in their dedicated concussion clinic in Auckland, said he was more concerned with if less force was required to produce the same event and how long a player takes to recover.

Though he admitted after “about three” concussions, he would begin to get concerned, not to mention 40 plus of them. 

But that’s exactly what former All Black and Blues player Steve Devine endured throughout his 10-year playing career. 

Kara was the Blues doctor in 2007, and the man who ultimately made the call for Devine to hang up his boots.

To this day the former halfback is sensitive to light and is seldom seen without his sunglasses on.

You won’t catch him at a busy Auckland bar or cafe, as the noise still brings on splitting migraines. 

Before retriment, Devine struggled with day to day tasks as his fatigue levels became unbearable. 

The medical science or understanding of concussions was virtually non-existent in the early 2000s, he said.

“It was basically a case of the doctor asking me ‘are you sweet’. I’d always say ‘yeah’ because I was a competitor and wanted to get back out there.”

Devine says he is "100 times better" today, than when he retired in 2007. But the battle continues.
LAWRENCE SMITH/STUFFDevine says he is “100 times better” today, than when he retired in 2007. But the battle continues.

Kara said they simply didn’t understand the seriousness of head knocks ten plus years ago while Devine was playing, though he could see the repeated trauma was having an effect.

There is no telling exactly what the long-term effects of Devine’s repeated head knocks will be, but he holds no resentment toward medical staff at the time and believes they always operated in his best interests – they simply didn’t have the science available.

He applauded the way concussion is being handled these days (in professional sports) and hoped it would trickle down to the lower grades as well.

“It’s setting a great example for the kids. If you get a big knock, come off and stay off.

“And this new research around active recovery is going to change the game for the better I think,” Devine said.

Sunday Star Times