The Dizzying Rise of Concussion Rates in Athletics

footWith the NFL and NHL seasons well underway, concussions have returned to the national spotlight. In fact, in the last week alone, at least five pro athletes in the US sustained concussions during play.

A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a “bump, blow, or jolt to the head”. As the brain does not completely fill the skull, the brain “rebounds off of the front or the back side of the cranial cavity” resulting in bruising or shearing. Immediate symptoms can include headache, confusion, dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, fatigue, and – in 10% of cases – loss of consciousness.  Long-term symptoms are more serious and include difficulty concentrating, memory problems, sleep disturbance, irritability, and depression.

According to studies, concussion-related hospitalizations have risen significantly in recent years – particularly among youth. Experts offer several possible explanations. First, on a positive note, concussion diagnosis has improved: “People are recognizing the signs and symptoms [and] are more aware of the complications. So people are coming in more.” This enhanced awareness may stem from educational campaigns or increased media attention on concussion-related deaths and injury among professional and varsity athletes

Matthew Gfeller Foundation
Others maintain that concussions are actually increasing in frequency. In the words of one expert, “Children today are bigger and faster and the increased weight and velocity may also be causing more of these injuries”. More youth are also participating in organized sports, which “tend to be more intense in terms of practice and competition”. Finally, the rising culture of “staying quiet when injured and getting back in the game”, may be exacerbating head injuries.

To treat concussions, the American Academy of Pediatrics advise patients to “restrict both physical and mental exertion” (including schoolwork, playing video games, and watching TV) “until symptoms have resolved”. This generally takes a few weeks, however, “symptoms of a severe injury could persist for months or even years”. In severe cases, doctors may also perform surgery to relieve brain pressure from swelling.

Unfortunately, options for preventing concussions are limited. While wearing helmets can reduce skull fractures and lacerations, it cannot stop the brain from “rattling around” in the skull. Instead, medical professionals encourage athletes (especially those with multiple past concussions) to retire from contact sports completely. But this may soon change. Research suggests that there may be ways to increase the volume of the cerebral venous system, creating a sort of “bubble wrap” effect. This naturally occurs in woodpeckers, longhorn sheep, and potentially humans at high altitudes (where concussion rates are 30% lower).

To learn more about concussions, or to support concussion awareness, please contact the Matthew Gfeller Foundation, the Brain Trauma Foundation, or our partners, the Brain Injury Association of Tennessee and the Brain Injury Association of Virginia.

Flickr Photo Credit: John McStravick