Concussions: A Painful Price of Competition

The amount of concussions that occur during sporting events are on the rise.  Athletes are getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and the hits they both sustain and deliver are harder than ever.  Concussions are brain injuries that are caused by a traumatic blow to the head that can cause various short-term and long-term symptoms.  These side effects are serious and if not treated as such, may result in a fatal tragedy.  Dizziness, headaches, memory loss, balance, fatigue, confusion, loss of coordination, and loss of concentration are but a few of the symptoms one may experience after a concussion.  Loss of consciousness may or may not happen at the moment a person is concussed, and because many athletes try to play through any pain, a concussion may go undiagnosed if the athlete fails to report the head injury to the athletic trainer.  Undiagnosed concussions increase the likelihood an athlete will sustain another brain injury, which can cause Second Impact Syndrome; a condition that occurs when a person experiences another blow to the head before the first concussion has completely healed, which can lead to cerebral swelling, subdural hematomas, and even death. 

The presence of an athletic trainer is another factor that is crucial to the diagnosis and safe treatment of concussions.  Fewer than half of high schools in the United States have a Certified Athletic Trainer.  In the case of a few high school football players, depicted in the CNN documentary “Big Hits, Broken Dreams”, this has been an influence in fatal head injuries.   Without an athletic trainer present, there is no individual trained in identifying a brain injury and it sets the athlete up for dangerous repercussions.  Dr. Sanjay Gupta formed the yearlong project that was featured on CNN and investigated high school football players specifically.  He found that 1 in 10 high school football players get concussions and that on average, a player will sustain 650 sub-concussive blows every season.  Sub-concussive blows are the everyday hits that don’t result in a concussion.  It was also revealed that some hits dished out on the football field are comparable to a car accident and may have up to 150G’s of force.  Prevention of every hit and injury is impossible due to the nature of the game, but prevention of the amount of concussions, the amount of Second Impact Syndromes, and the amount of fatalities can be reduced.

Football isn’t the only sport where athletes are susceptible to major head trauma.  A study performed at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, called “Epidemiology of Concussions Among United States High School Athletes in 20 Sports” researched this point further.  This study found that an estimated 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually, but football isn’t the only high-risk sport.  While football remains the sport with the highest amount of brain injuries reported, it was concluded in this investigation that “the majority of concussions resulted from football, followed by girls soccer, boys wrestling, and girls basketball.”  Girls also sustain higher concussion rates than boys in all gender-comparable sports studied, demonstrating that sport and gender plays a role in the pattern of concussions occurring.  Sports such as ice hockey, football, and boys’ lacrosse were the contact sports with the highest concussion rates across the 20 sports researched in this study.

Prevention of blows to the head and brain injuries is possible through different options.  Rule changes in the sports are the most obvious, however, it also has the most resistance.  Many players, coaches, and fans alike, regardless of the sport, feel changing the rules will alter the nature of the game so many of them love.  They want the original game and rules to stay intact, but at what price?  Even in football, helmets worn will slow impact but won’t totally prevent a concussion.  There have been recent changes to the types of hits that are allowed, but getting every player to obey and every referee and coach to enforce is an uphill battle.  Stricter punishments for illegal hits can be an incentive to players to discontinue dangerous collisions.  No matter what rule changes occur, accidents can still happen.  Baseline concussion tests should be implemented at every school to be able to better diagnose a concussion and recovery time.  These baseline tests are computer-based and each athlete takes the test before the start of a season while healthy and tests things such as visual memory, verbal memory, processing speeds, and reaction time.  The computer registers the scores and in the event of a possible concussion, taking the test again will determine the severity of the head trauma.  There has even been anti-concussion legislation being passed in many states throughout the country, which requires athletic officials such as a coach, trainer, or referee to remove an athlete from competition if they are showing potential signs of a brain injury.  Also, it disallows players from returning to their sport until cleared by a licensed medical professional.

Like any injury, it would be nearly impossible to prevent every concussion that may occur during a sporting event.  The only way to 100% prevent it is to not participate, but that, too, is unrealistic.  Taking the proper steps to treat the injury when it does happen will be the best shot at stopping the injury from becoming more serious or resulting in death, because while sports are a beloved activity worldwide, they are not more precious than human life.

You may watch CNN's "Big Hits, Broken Dreams" this Saturday, February 25th, and 8:00PM.