The leading cause of traumatic brain injury is car accidents. Number two on the list is concussions suffered while playing sports. High-contact sports such as football, boxing, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling, rugby, and ice hockey pose a high risk of a closed head injury, even when protective headgear is used.
What the blunt force trauma or abnormal movement of the head does is rapidly accelerate the athlete’s brain against the inner wall of the skull in a rotational pattern. This movement twists the brain, and it’s forces like these that the brain tolerates least. The bruising and stretching of brain tissue can result in a momentary separation from consciousness. In addition, repeated minor concussions can lead to dementia later in life.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that almost four million sports- and recreation-related concussions occur each year—and they exact a heavy toll. There are about 235,000 hospitalizations and 50,000 deaths annually due to concussions. Estimates suggest that up to 40 percent of football players experience a concussion annually, with the majority of these sports brain injuries going unreported, unrecognized, and unmanaged.
You don’t have to be “knocked out” to have a concussion. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of concussions result in loss of consciousness. Concussion symptoms vary depending on the degree of severity. Symptoms of a mild concussion can include confusion, nausea, blurred vision, loss of memory of the event, ringing in the ears, and vomiting.
And if an athlete returns to the game too soon before the symptoms of concussion have disappeared and the brain is healed, the results can be deadly. When someone sustains a second trauma to the head—it’s called second impact syndrome—while not yet recovered from a previous concussion, it can result in a potentially lethal cascade of events that causes rapid brain swelling and death.
Head injuries are now such a major medical concern in sports that special patient management tools have been developed. Used by athletes, they instantly detect brain injuries at the moment of contact, and provide patient-specific guidance about when athletes can return to play.
The novel concussion management system includes a special assessment tool that is used to establish an athlete’s baseline cognitive and motor skills at the beginning of his or her athletic season. This is the first tool that objectively and accurately assesses cognitive and motor function simultaneously.
During practice sessions and games, the athletes use a special instrumented mouthguard dosimeter that records all hits to the head. The mouthguard looks exactly like an ordinary sports model but with a big difference: It’s able to monitor all the energy imparted by a blow to the head of any kind, recording and reporting this impact data via Bluetooth technology in real time.
Following a traumatic brain injury event detected by the mouthguard, the cognitive assessment test is retaken. The team doctor and athletic trainer can then use this important information to manage and gauge the athlete’s eventual safe return to physical activity.
Where Are They Now
Concussion worries loom large in the sports world. In the past few years, more than 3,300 players have sued the National Football League, charging that not enough was done to inform them of the dangers of concussions in the past, or to take care of them today. On the grade school and high school level, there is a now a call for school systems to have mandatory, science-based concussion management systems, developed in accordance with national guidelines. A special concussion app is currently being tested with high school teams. The app checks the athlete's memory, reaction time and balance, then stores the information on an iPad. If a student suffers a head injury, the data can be compared to see if there has been a concussion.
Recent studies out of Harvard have found that for every diagnosed concussion, college football players can have about 21 hard hits and possibly 6 suspected concussions. In 2015, several college football teams, including University of South Carolina and University of Kansas, will be wearing mouth guards to monitor the head impacts of players during practices and games. Several other studies taking off in 2016 will investigate concussion management protocols in a variety of sports. In 2017, a new grant funding programs of up to $25 million for research on traumatic brain injury and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease found in individuals with multiple concussions, was announced. It is hoped that continued funding of research projects around the area of concussion management will improve treatment and prevention programs.