Preventing Concussions in Athletes, Part 1

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Preventing Concussions in Athletes, Part 1

Students and professional players at risk

NFL rookie Chris Borland made headlines this spring when the San Francisco 49ers linebacker announced he was quitting professional football after just one season, citing his concerns about the potential health risks of repetitive head injuries.

This summer, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers announced that Olympic silver medalist Amanda Kessel would miss her final year of women’s ice hockey due to a concussion she sustained playing for the women’s national team.

More and more, head injuries and their long-term effects on athletes are at the forefront of the discussions surrounding sports and the implications for children who play them.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that traumatic brain injury, whether mild or severe, caused about 2.5 million emergency department visits, hospitalizations or deaths. Since then, that number has increased, though head injuries themselves might not have, said Steve Broglio, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

“The rates aren’t going up; the reporting is going up, and the economic cost is growing, too,” said Broglio, who is on staff at the University of Michigan Injury Center.

Traumatic brain injury, a disruption of normal brain function caused by a bump or blow to the head, often called a concussion, already has a significant cost. According to a study published in the May/June issue of the Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation, 2009 estimates showed that the lifetime cost of fatal, hospitalized and non-hospitalized traumatic brain injuries was about $221 billion. Those costs do not factor in lost days at school or work, or extended time spent on either due to long-term effects of head injury.

Public health advocates are stepping up to prevent traumatic brain injuries, or at least prevent their side effects, which include difficulty concentrating or thinking clearly, headaches, irritability, anxiety or sadness. Such injuries have also been linked to sleep issues, lethargy, vision problems and sensitivity to light. And they can include long-term risks for depression, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other health issues. According to the Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, which conducts research through the university’s Brain Bank in collaboration with U.S. Veterans Affairs and Sports Legacy Institute, the vast majority of former NFL players whose brains were donated for research showed signs of the degenerative disease linked to repeated concussions.

Part of the issue surrounding concussions, however, is the relative lack of research on them. Researchers do not know how many or which head injuries can lead to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for example. High-profile cases have led the NFL, NHL and even NBA to enact concussion guidelines for players, but very few adults are professional athletes. However, millions of children play sports while growing up, said Larry Cohen, executive director of the Prevention Institute.

“While we need more research and more information, we can’t let our kids be the guinea pigs while we figure it out,” Cohen told the American Public Health Association. “Kids’ heads can’t just be collateral damage.”

Check back tomorrow for “Preventing Concussions in Athletes, Part 2”

Reprinted with permission from The Nation’s Health, APHA

Lindsey Wahowia