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brain Concussions in Athletes & Sports Related Concussions

All too often we watch our favorite players on the field whether it by at pro, high school or college level and see them become seriously injured.  Aside from broken bones and pulled ligaments, head injuries, specifically sports related concussions are all too common. New studies have shown they may even have serious long-term effects. Let’s take a look at sports related concussions in more depth.

What is a Concussion?
When you suffer a concussion you experience a traumatic blow to the head, whether it be mild or severe, where the brain moves rigorously and violently within the skull.  Just like what happens during a seizure, a concussion causes the brain cells to fire all at once.  At times this can result in unconsciousness, but symptoms can present themselves hours or days after the physical injury occurs.

In the case of a sports related concussion, an athlete may not recognize symptoms right away or they may be reluctant to report in order to stay in the game. If it looks like an athlete has suffered ANY type of blow to the head it is important to have him sit it out until they can be properly examined by the medical staff and monitored after.

What are the symptoms?
If you experience any of the symptoms below after suffering a blow to the head, no matter how minor, it is imperative you seek immediate medical treatment.

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty remembering personal information or recent events
  • Slurred Speech
  • Convulsions
  • Dizziness or poor balance
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Neck stiffness
  • Severe headache
  • Unequal pupil sizes
  • Loss of feeling or movement in arms or legs
  • Extreme drowsiness
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Personality changes
  • Blurred vision

How do you treat a sports concussion?
ANY head injury should be addressed immediately – and yes this means taking that passionate player out of the game. Medical staff are highly trained in assessing head injuries, but they will first look for any of the symptoms listed above.  If unsure, always go the ER. You also want to be more careful of head injuries that present themselves in children, the elderly and anyone taking blood thinners. The latter is at risk for developing major bleeding from a head injury.  After any life a medical professional has ruled out threatening issues, it’s also important to get plenty of rest.

When can you return to playing sports?
Be warned that if you return to play too early, you increase your chances for a more serious brain injury.  While the amount of time an athlete needs to recuperate can vary and may not even be definitively known, there has been extensive research into this topic. In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation announced a simple reaction time test which may help identify athletes who have a head injury that is serious enough to require time off from sports. This test comes in the form of a device that is used to test the reaction time of an athlete who has suffered head injury. Read more about this study.

A computer program was also developed by the University of Pittsburgh's Sports Medicine Center. The program essentially tests the baseline performance of an athlete at the start of a season and then again after the athlete suffers head injury – thus creating a basis of performance evaluation. Read more about this test.

All in all – an athlete should never resume play until they are cleared by their doctor and all chances of long-term side effects have been ruled out.

What are some long-term side effects?
Individuals who have suffered repeat head injuries or cumulative concussions seem to be more at risk for long-term side effects. Some long-term side effects can include depression, cognitive deficits, brain damage, behavioral/emotional changes and biochemical changes at the cellular level.

Some research indicates that depression can be a serious long-term side effect. One study suggests that depression in head trauma patients can be as high as 40%.  Another study found that of 2,552 retired pro-football players, over 11 percent of those with a history of multiple concussions also had a diagnosis of clinical depression.

Yet another study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine focused on structural change in the brain that correlates to cognitive defects in thinking, memory & attention. They looked at the structural changes in the white matter of the brains of patients with head injuries, those with the most severe head injuries showed the most structural change.

Sports Related Concussion Facts:

  •  An estimated 1.6-3.8 million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur in the United States each year.
  • During 2001-2005, children and youth ages 5–18 years accounted for 2.4 million sports-related emergency department (ED) visits annually, of which 6% (135,000) involved a concussion.
  • Of the 1.4 million traumatic brain injuries sustained by children and adults in the United States each year, at least 75% are mild and/or concussions.
  • Among children and youth ages 5–18 years, the five leading sports or ecreational activities, which account for concussions, include bicycling, football, basketball, playground activities, and soccer.

(Information taken from The Brain Injury Association of America)

It’s important to note that it’s not only athletes who play “on the field” that are at risk. Snowboarders and skiers are at high risk for sustaining concussions from competing or just leisure activity. We also cannot discount cyclists and motorsports enthusiasts. The bottom line? Wear a helmet and a mouth guard and always take precaution in your sporting activities.

For more information about concussions, their symptoms, and their treatment, please visit the Princeton Brain and Spine Care Concussion Clinic website.