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An Introduction to Brain Injuries in Sports

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Hunter is a Clinical Psychologist M.A. (PsyD 2023) who specializes in mood, anxiety, and trauma disorders.

Defining Head Trauma

The term sports-related concussion has historically been used to define “low velocity injuries that cause brain ‘shaking’ resulting in clinical symptoms and that are not necessarily related to a pathological injury.”

A concussion occurs when an athlete experiences some form of external force that causes their brain to shake back and forth within the skull which results in impairment of neurological functioning. Sports-related concussions are often diffuse in nature due to sports involving acceleration, deceleration, and rotational forces that can produce damaging effects across the brain (e.g., tackles in football, headers in soccer, hook punches in boxing).

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Concussions in Sports

Concussions can occur at any age level of sports. In 2018 there were about 454,407 concussions sustained during sports that were treated at hospital emergency rooms. However, these estimates may actually underestimate the true number of concussions in sports as some athletes who experience concussive symptoms do not report their symptoms or seek help from medical personnel.

Sports that had the highest number of concussions among adults included cycling (64,411), football (51,892), basketball (38,898), and soccer (26,955). Among children aged 14 and younger, playground equipment (35,058), football (31,277), basketball (20,242), and cycling (19,921) had the highest rates of concussions per sport.

The rate of concussions that occurred during sports doubled for children ages 8 to 13 and tripled for children ages 14 to 19 between 1997 and 2007. Between 2010 and 2016 around two million children visited the emergency room because of a concussion sustained during sport and recreational activities. Out of these two million visits, it was found that about 45% of visits were due to a concussion that resulted from a high contact sport, such as football, soccer, lacrosse, and wrestling.

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Life Altering Consequences

While a concussion by itself can be a dangerous occurrence, the risk of reinjury and its subsequent consequences can be devastating.

Effects on the Brain

Athletes especially are at a higher risk for developing mental health disorders (e.g., depression), neurocognitive difficulties (e.g., memory, processing speed), and neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

Loss of Life

In addition to these disorders, research has indicated that second impact syndrome (SIS) is another dangerous consequence of repeat injury that is quicker in its development of catastrophic outcomes. The negative effects of SIS have been found to occur in as quickly as five minutes after an athlete sustains two consecutive head injuries.

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What Can We Do?

Increasing the safety of athletes through protective gear, better rules, and an established guideline for concussion recovery are the best ways to prevent concussions in sports and in turn SIS.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Hunter

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