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Head injuries studied at Can-Am Rugby tournament

August 4, 2016
By ANTONIO OLIVERO - Staff Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - Dr. Michael Falvo, assistant professor of pharmacology, physiology and neuroscience at Rutgers University, said he was forced to quit rugby due to too many head injuries.

"It's one of the reasons I stopped playing," Falvo said Saturday, July 30 after he pulled back the curtain of his concussion research tent at the 43rd annual Can-Am Rugby Tournament. "I don't think any rugby player knows the actual amount (of concussions they've had)."

With the High Peaks and Olympic ski jumps visible in the distance, Falvo and his Rutgers-approved research team's work was conducted in this small white tent 25 yards from a rugby pitch.

Article Photos

A Rutgers University-approved concussion research team conducted testing on rugby players inside this tent at this weekend’s 43rd annual Can-Am Rugby Tournament in Lake Placid. This was the group’s fifth consecutive year conducting testing, which also took place in Saranac Lake.
(News photo — Antonio Olivero)

Inside, away from the hard-hitting action, was a reclinable beach chair and several screens connected to ultrasound, trans-cranial Doppler and blood pressure equipment.

On the outside of the tent, the words "Concussion Research" were adhered in black electrical tape.

"It's a pretty simple set-up," Falvo said. "Put them in a beach chair, and then we tilt them back down.

"It's our little mobile lab, if you will."

In a day and age in sports where concussions are discussed as an epidemic, Falvo's tent represents work being done to learn more about the effect of head injuries.

In the United States, rugby doesn't have the systematic testing found in sports such as football and hockey, which benefit from testing at the NFL, NHL and NCAA levels, Falvo said. But, he added, that doesn't mean concussions are less prevalent in rugby.

This was Rutgers University's fifth consecutive summer conducting research at the Can-Am Tournament, "hypothesis-generating work" focused on "the mechanism of injury" of concussions, as Falvo puts it.

Players with possible head injuries could enter the concussion tent after they were attended to in the tournament's medical tent. Falvo said by 3 p.m. Saturday, 10 to 15 players had entered the concussion tent that day. In the past, numbers have fluctuated between two to 30 people per day, he said. Over the course of five years, the Rutgers team has data on more than 100 ruggers.

Where this differs from most other research, Falvo said, is in its immediacy. It can test possibly concussed players within an hour of injury.

"If they've been told maybe they should sit out, we ask if they are interested in volunteering for our study," he said. "If they are interested, then we'll take them through these steps, and it takes us about 60 minutes to complete."

The Rutgers team then follows up with players via online cognitive tests a week, a month and three months after the injury to see how blood flow in the brain may relate to the longer-term effects of head injuries.

"We look at things like brain blood flow, blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, all of those kind of typical things that we call 'vitals,'" Falvo said. "But the really novel thing we look at is brain blood flow, and we use ultrasound to do that."

Yes, Falvo clarifies, it's the same kind of ultrasound technology used on pregnant women to gauge the health of pre-natal babies.

The Rutgers research team also tests players coming off the pitch who haven't suffered head injuries to serve as their control group. The testing is free to participants, and though players don't receive their own data, Falvo said players understand their input is useful in potentially helping others in the future.

Falvo said the group's findings have been presented in scientific meetings of concussed vs. non-concussed players and that the team is preparing a manuscript that is under review for a scientific journal. He said the group also plans to use the journal's findings to support research grants that would then enable the group to conduct the research on a larger scale, spanning an entire season of specific rugby teams.

He added that the team is light on takeaways at this point, citing uncontrollable variables such as dehydration caused by heat.

"What we can say right now is that players are symptomatic and we can detect some differences in their physiology, and that is one of the newer things that hasn't been done is the immediacy of the timing," he said.



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