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Newcastle Falcons are trialling a virtual reality headset to see how it could potentially cut down the risk of a concussed player returning to play too soon after a brain injury.
ITV News Tyne Tees has been given exclusive access to see how the NeuroFlex headset, which has been designed in Australia, has been deployed by the Falcons' medical team.
The team at Kingston Park have been using the technology since the start of the current Gallagher Premiership season.
The eye-tracking technology in the headset uses virtual reality to help monitor the impact of a head knock on a player by measuring coordinated eye and head movement.
At the start of the season, each player was scanned using the technology, enabling the medical team at Newcastle Falcons to have a benchmark of optimal brain health.
This allows a concussion to be quickly and accurately identified, allowing medics to plan a safe return to play without guesswork.
See how the technology will work. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees
Lead physiotherapist at the Newcastle Falcons, Andy Shea has tested the entire playing squad using the technology.
This baseline data will allow the Newcastle Falcons to objectively track players’ brain health over time, to quickly and accurately identify any changes that occur during their lifetime.
Andy said: "Rugby is a contact sport, I don't think we'll ever be able to fully eradicate the potential for concussion within the game.
"A concussion injury can be career-changing, it can be life-changing, so with that being the case we need to get better at assessing and diagnosing concussion.
"We also need to make sure that as the players recover we're not putting them back into rugby too soon, we're not putting them back into a contact sport before their brain has fully recovered."
Physio Andy Shea scans player Callum Chick with the VR headset. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees
Concussion injuries are not unique to the Falcons - they are an issue right across the Premiership.
Figures show concussion was the most reported injury in the 2021-22 season, accounting for almost a quarter of injuries, with 18 concussions per 1,000 hours of playing time. In total, there were 158 concussions sustained in matches over the season.
One of the Falcons scanned is Philip Van Der Walt, who admits he has suffered plenty of concussions in his career as a back row, leaving him worried about how it may impact him once he retires from professional rugby.
Phillip said: "Some of the worst concussions are where you're obviously knocked out completely and have to leave the field immediately.
"I think the scarier thing is when you come off the pitch and you can't really remember what year it is, what day it is, and I think that is more frightening than anything else. With other injuries, it is really obvious, whereas with a head injury, it is less obvious and I think that is where this technology is really key."
Currently, the Newcastle Falcons are the only Premiership rugby side using the NeuroFlex Virtual Reality headset. They're taking it on a season-long trial but Andy Shea says he's seen enough in the results and data to believe it should be rolled out by the RFU right across professional rugby.
Andy added: "I think previously there has been a lack of black and white data that tells you 'yes, they've definitely recovered' or 'no, they definitely haven't'.
"I think the technology in the headset helps us assess various aspects of concussion that we haven't previously been able to quite so well or quite so objectively. I think this technology would be a really valuable addition to the battery of concussion tests that we currently have in the league."
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