Allow ample recovery time for sports-related injuries
By: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
Head injuries sustained while playing sports are, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon. Our response to these injuries has changed over the years, however. Two or three decades ago, standard procedure was to put someone back into the game as soon as he or she felt physically able to play. That’s no longer the case. As our knowledge about head injury has increased, we know brain trauma can be cumulative, and once injured, the brain becomes more susceptible to further, more serious, injury.
A blow or jolt to the head can cause the brain to move inside the skull. This, in turn, causes injury to the brain tissue and is normally called a concussion or closed head injury.
According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 300,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, most of which can be classified as concussions, occur in the United States each year.
When sustaining a concussion, some people lose consciousness, but this is not always the case. You can sustain a brain injury without ever losing consciousness. The brain is very complex and each head injury is unique.
In addition to loss of consciousness, typical symptoms of a concussion can include: memory loss of events right before or right after the injury, confusion, slurred speech, lack of concentration, lightheadedness, blurred vision, ear ringing, inability to stand or walk, nausea, vomiting, coordination and balance problems. It’s important to remember, however, that each person and each brain injury is unique. Someone may have many of these symptoms, or hardly any.
In general, all brain injuries should be taken seriously. If you suspect you might have a concussion, you should see a physician and follow his or her treatment instructions carefully. Symptoms can last for days, weeks or even longer. Recovery time varies from person to person. Factors impacting recovery include: the severity of the injury, part of the brain that was injured, age and other health factors.
Current sports recommendations for young athletes (under age 18) state that persons who sustain a concussion should not return to playing on the day the injury occurred. There are a number of reasons for this recommendation.
First, healing takes time. The longer you give the brain to heal, the more likely it will be able to fully recover from the injury.
Second, once injured, the brain becomes more likely to be re-injured. A second, or third injury is often more serious than the first. In fact, according to the CDC, once a person suffers from a concussion they are as much as four times more likely to sustain a second concussion. In addition, after several concussions, it takes less of a blow to cause injury and each injury requires more recovery time.
Finally, repetitive head injuries can result in what is known as second impact syndrome. Second impact syndrome can occur when a person sustains a second head injury before the symptoms from a prior injury have resolved. The second injury causes cerebral edema and herniation, leading to collapse and death within minutes. While rare, second impact syndrome can have devastating effects.
Brain damage caused by concussions may result in strokes, paralysis, headaches or reduced concentration and mental clarity. A 2009 study commissioned by the National Football League reported that Alzheimer's disease or other similar memory-related diseases appear in the league's former players at 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.
No one wants to miss a big game because of a concussion, but consider the alternative. Once injured, the brain is more likely to be re-injured and, most often, a second injury is more serious – with a longer recovery time – than the first. We also know that brain injury can be cumulative and the severity of the trauma increases with each injury. The real way to help your team – and yourself – is by making healthy and smart decisions that enable you to fully recover after a head injury so that you decrease your risk of re-injury or more serious problems. The big game may seem important right now, but in the long run, protecting your brain from further injury is the smart way to play.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.