A Senate committee has recommended the federal government consider developing a national strategy to reduce concussions in contact sports.

The recommendation is one of 13 in an inquiry into concussions and repeated head trauma that was tabled in the Senate on Tuesday night by the deputy chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Janet Rice.

“The committee heard tragic stories from athletes whose lives have been shattered because of concussion and from who have lost loved ones because of the impact of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE,” Senator Rice told the chamber.

The inquiry’s report recommends the government consider developing binding return to play protocols to protect sportspeople from head injuries.

“Consideration should be given to whether any existing government bodies would be best placed to monitor, oversee and/or enforce concussion-related rules and return to play protocols in Australian sports,” the report recommends.

At present, Australia’s elite sporting codes have different periods that players must sit out after sustaining a concussion.

The AFL stipulates a minimum of 12 days and the NRL requires 11.

There are no guidelines for junior and grassroots sports.

The AFL is facing a number of class actions by former players who are suing the league for damages caused by concussion injuries.

Toby Greene holds his head

The AFL stipulates a 12-day mandatory stand down period after a concussion.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

Former players Danny Frawley and Shane Tuck, who both took their own lives, and Polly Farmer, who was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, all died with CTE.

CTE is a brain disorder caused by repeated head injuries, which causes the death of nerve cells in the brain and can only be diagnosed after death.

Shane Tuck’s sister, Renee, gave evidence to the inquiry which was read to the Senate by Senator Rice.

“We watched him decline over many years, but the last two years were probably the most tormenting and traumatising for him,” Senator Rice read from Renee Tuck’s statement.

“Shane had a lot of auditory hallucinations, he slowly ended up on the verge of dementia. By the end he’d lost motor skills and memory.”

Senator Rice also quoted the former Australian Rugby 7s and Wallaroos player, Kirby Sefo, who told the inquiry: “I begin with dizziness and hypersensitivity to light. I lose parts of my vision. I experience a loss of balance and disorientation, followed by heavy fevers and sweats and then severe vomiting.”

Neurologist Rowena Mobbs from Macquarie University outlined that repeated head injuries lead to the development of CTE.

“The causality is there that in that repetitive head injuries cause CTE and that we now need to see that recognised by the big football codes in Australia and all contact sport,” said Dr Mobbs, who gave a submission to the Senate inquiry.

“We need sporting organisations to acknowledge that in order to move on through this issue now.”

The inquiry heard 92 submissions from athletes, their families, doctors, the AFL, NRL and other organisations.

Dr Rowena Mobbs sits in her office

Dr Rowena Mobbs is a neurologist in Sydney specialising in cognitive disorders including dementia.(Supplied)

Dr Mobbs welcomed the inquiry’s report, calling it: “A landmark for Australia and internationally if the recommendations are acted upon.”

“I think they have been bold in their recommendations,” Dr Mobbs said.

At the same time, Dr Mobbs was critical of sporting organisations who she said had been slow to act on preventing and treating concussion.

“I think the sports have really had a lot of time here to act, I mean after all the first indication that CTE could be afoot in tackle football was in 2005 and we’ve been calling for change for a long time,” she said.

“But we need to look positively, I think we need to look with optimism and really look to kids today and look to prevention.”

The committee called on the government to set up a National Sports Injury Database as a matter of urgency.

It said the database would “significantly help address the lack of sports injury data available in Australia, including at the community level of sport.

Brandon Smith has his head held

The NRL says it is “committed to player safety” at all levels of rugby league and supports the inquiry. (Getty Images: Hannah Peters)

Among the reports other recommendations are:

  • That the Australian Government and medical professionals develop return to play protocols across all sports for adults and children
  • That professional sporting codes collect data on concussions and sub-concussive events and share this with the National Sports Injury Database
  • That the government consider establishing independent research pathways into the short- and long-term effects of concussions
  • That steps are taken to improve community awareness of concussion
  • That national sporting organisations explore rule changes to reduce the impact of concussion
  • That professional sports organisations ensure their athletes have insurance coverage for head trauma
  • That state and territory governments explore how professional sports people could be eligible for workers compensation.

Dr Mobbs said she was pleased the report recommended long-term research.

“I think we should all be thrilled to see this report,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the NRL said the league was “fully supportive” of the inquiry.

“The NRL was fully supportive of the Senate inquiry, having appeared before the public hearings and made submissions setting out the comprehensive measures we currently have in place across the game from grass-roots to elite levels,” they said.

“The NRL is committed to player safety at all levels of the game.”

The spokesperson said the NRL would review the report in detail before making any further comments.

The AFL has been contacted for comment.

National concussion guidelines in the works

Professor Karen Barlow, who works at the Queensland’s Children Hospital and University of Queensland as a paediatric neurologist, is currently developing Australia and New Zealands’ first national guidelines for the management of mild traumatic brain injury and concussion.

The researcher welcomed the recommendations handed down, after giving evidence at a public hearing for the Senate Inquiry in Brisbane earlier this year.

“Just in the Queensland Children Hospital alone, we have 2,500 children attend the emergency room each year with concussion,” Professor Barlow said.

“And we know that about 10 to 25 per cent of those children are going to have longer term symptoms and need help in our complex concussion clinic.”

She said the new guidelines will be implemented across the country by early next year.

“These guidelines are going to help give a coordinated approach for all Australians, so regardless of whether you’re in rural or metro areas, your GP is still going to have access to the same information about the up-to-date things, what to do,” she said.

“This is for health care professionals such as GP’s, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, we’ll have information for educators about how to help children return to school, university students and workers to returning to the work force after concussion.”