The Impact of Sport-Related Head Injuries on the Brain

August 18, 2013 
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Sport-Related Head InjuriesWe’ve all heard about the dangers of concussions in high-impact sports such as football and boxing. The examples set by many professional athletes and coaches, and even by some parents, encourage young athletes with sport-related head injuries to shake it off and get back on the field — a practice that could potentially lead to major brain trauma.

A Chronicle Review article by Paul Voosen, “A Brain Gone Bad,” recounts the experience of a retired National Football League player who was part of a Boston University School of Medicine study to help diagnose chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease that has been found in deceased football players.

Unfortunately, the brain trauma from injuries sustained during football can produce symptoms such as anxiety and depression — sometimes resulting in suicide. The anonymous player featured in Voosen’s article experienced the customary physical injuries that football causes, but he didn’t expect to experience these psychological symptoms. During the study he admitted, “Now I wish I had never played. Well, some I do, some I don’t.”

There is a common misperception that only football players and boxers sustain major injuries to the brain, but “low-impact” sports such as cycling and cheerleading can also result in major head injuries. According to a New York Times blog by Anahad O’Connor, cycling was found to be the “leading cause of sport-related head injuries in children under 14, causing 40,272 injuries, roughly double the number related to football (21,878)” in 2009.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an article about a high school cheerleader named Shelby, an honors student who sustained a concussion while performing a cheerleading stunt. Shelby took just a five-week break to recover from the injury before she returned to the sport she loved. Just a few months later, she experienced a second concussion while cheering at a basketball game, and “her symptoms this time were more severe. She was sensitive to noise and light and experienced fainting spells, seizures, anxiety, depression, and excessive drowsiness.”

In retrospect, Shelby realized that she should have waited longer before returning to cheerleading after her first concussion, and she regrets that her education and future in the sport were compromised because of that decision. Not all athletes who sustain concussions need prolonged time off from school. Each decision should be made in consultation with the child’s pediatrician or a concussion expert.

Concussions are considered “a type of traumatic brain injury,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention article, but many parents and coaches tend to shrug them off as typical occurrences. “This sudden movement of the brain can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, stretching and damaging the brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain,” the piece notes. “These chemical changes can lead to short- or long-term problems with thinking, learning, language, and emotions, until the brain recovers.”

Several blows to the head, or the result of many “subconcussive” or small bumps a brain may take from impact with the skull, can lead to more serious brain diseases. According to the research outlined in “A Brain Gone Bad,” these diseases can cause “changes in behavior and mood” and those affected can develop cognitive problems such as dementia, similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

Far too many students, parents, and coaches underestimate the severity of head injuries in athletics. If your child experiences a sport-related head injury, seek medical attention and follow the physician’s advice regarding how long your child should refrain from physical activity to ensure a full recovery. To gain a better understanding of the causes and symptoms of concussions, visit www.cdc.gov/Concussion.

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