With the White House’s recent summit to discuss funding for education on concussions and a litigation attempt filed by former NFL players, the risk of head injuries in sports has become more well-known. Still, many athletes and their parents and coaches are unsure of the signs and effects of concussions.
What is a concussion?
A concussion occurs when the brain moves inside the skull in a way that causes an impact which leads to swelling. Concussions are considered mild traumatic brain injuries and occur as many as 3.8 million times per year in the United States alone, according to the CDC. Most of these are due to impact or sudden deceleration forces that commonly occur in sports.
Concussions are generally exhibited through bruising, swelling, nerve damage, and/or, in the most severe cases, bleeding of the brain.
What are the symptoms of a concussion?
Concussions can be grouped into clusters of symptoms. The American College of Sports Medicine outlines it as follows:
- Physical symptoms
- Headache, nausea, dizziness, vision problems, trouble balancing, sensitivity to light or noise
- Cognitive symptoms
- Slowed mental processing or “fogginess,” difficulty concentrating or remembering things
- Emotional symptoms
- Sadness, nervousness, irritability
- Sleep issues
- Sleeping more or less than normal, trouble falling asleep, daytime fatigue or drowsiness
If the following symptoms occur, seek emergency medical attention:
- Increasing confusion or headaches
- Double vision and/or unequal pupil size
- Irritability or other behavior change
- Fading in and out of consciousness or excessive drowsiness
These are symptoms of a more severe concussion that may include bleeding in the brain.
Remember that up to 47% of concussion sufferers do not report any symptoms immediately after the injury. If you know you or another athlete suffered a blow to the head, make sure to follow up with symptom checks over the next few hours and days.
How are concussions diagnosed and treated?
Unless the head trauma is severe enough to potentially cause bleeding, CT scans and MRIs are not usually helpful in diagnosing a concussion. Instead, doctors will generally perform a neurological test, including an assessment of balance, coordination and cognitive functions like memory, processing speed and attention.
Treatment of concussions may be as simple as avoiding excessive physical activity, including sports. For more serious cognitive problems, doctors may ask for reduced brain activity. This means the patient avoids schoolwork, video games, texting, reading, and other activities that involve thinking.
When can I get back to playing?
Your doctor will have the best advice on when to return to play based on the severity of your concussion, the sport you play, and the progress of your recovery to date. At best, most athletes will be on restricted activity for 7 to 14 days, although more serious concussions may require even longer for the brain to fully heal.
Generally speaking, athletes who suffer a concussion must use a gradual and planned approach to return to playing. He or she should be carefully monitored to watch for signs and symptoms that they are not fully healed yet. These may include dizziness, headache, etc.
What are the long term effects?
There are several potential long term problems with concussions, but most often these result from repeated concussions over a period of years (such as is often seen in collegiate or professional players) or reinjuring the head before the concussion is fully healed.
Some research suggests that the brain may never completely return to normal, even after only one concussion. This is all the more true for repeated concussions or head trauma. Motor pathways in the brain may be permanently severed and abnormal brain wave activity may be observed for years after the injury.
This damage can show up as Parkinson’s-like behavior or with Alzheimer’s-like symptoms of permanent problems with attention, memory, and cognitive function.
Unfortunately, prevention can be difficult in some sports. Head impacts may be a regular occurrence in football, soccer, hockey, and rugby.
Luckily, improvements in helmet designs have been found to help reduce the risk of concussions in sports like football and hockey. Always keep your helmet in good condition and replace it after severe impacts to help ensure you have a safe, functioning helmet.
With increased awareness in recent years, most sports leagues have made efforts to amend rules to prevent dangerous maneuvers, like head-grabbing football tackles in the NCAA. It helps for all members of the league to know the dangers of these sport-specific moves. Safety training and education about concussions is a must for all sports teams in terms of prevention and immediate response.
You may also be able to help prevent injury by strengthening your neck muscles. These muscles stabilize your head, which may help prevent the snapping force that can drive your brain against your skull and result in a non-impact concussion.
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