Concussions In Athletes: More Serious Than Previously Thought

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Athletes, whether they participate in school sports or are professionals, are potentially at risk of suffering a mild traumatic brain injury, also known as a concussion. The annual estimate of recreational and sports related concussions varies between over 1.5 million to almost 4 million.

Concussions have been in the news more lately, and for good reason. As health care technology continues to improve and evolve, it has become clear that these jolts to the head or body that rattle the brain can cause serious or even permanent brain damage. A severe concussion can be deadly. You can't just shake off a concussion and get back in the game.

What Are The Symptoms Of A Concussion?

Many symptoms are immediate and cause neurological symptoms, but some may not show up until hours, days, or even decades later.

  • Headache
  • Seeing "stars" or blurry vision
  • Feeling dazed and confused, stumbling, appearing intoxicated
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Memory impairment
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech

Immediate medical attention is imperative if a concussion is suspected. The athlete must be taken off the field and evaluated by medical or emergency room personnel for neck injuries, skull fractures, and brain bleeding.

It is a myth that someone who has suffered a concussion shouldn't go to sleep. In fact, sleep helps the brain to repair itself. Occasionally checking on the concussed person while they sleep is fine, but waking hourly is unnecessary.

While most mild traumatic brain injuries will spontaneously resolve themselves, once a person has had one concussion, the brain is even more susceptible to future concussive injuries. This can cause significant issues as one ages.

A recent study has found that while the initial symptoms of a concussion may have long since passed, abnormal brain waves and a wasting away of neural pathways can be seen years later. Older athletes who have a history of concussions frequently present with symptoms similar to the neurological disorder, Parkinson's disease. Other studies have shown thinning in the area of the brain affected by Alzheimer's disease. These brain changes can lead to weakened muscles and tremors, memory loss, and attention deficits.

What Can Be Done For The Long-Term Effects Of Concussions?

Physical therapy can be useful for dealing with the residual effects from a mild traumatic brain injury. A physical therapist who is trained in sports injuries can help the concussed patient with exercises that help to stabilize their gait, deal effectively with vertigo, and help the vestibular system, the balance system in the body that is controlled by a complex relationship between the inner ear, the eyes, and the brain. A physical therapist can also use software to create a baseline brain profile so progress as well as decline and the role of future injuries is mapped.