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Sports-related concussions more severe than once thought

Monday March 25, 2013
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Remember the 1996 Olympics when gymnast Kerri Strug performed a vault despite a severely injured ankle? This type of mental and physical toughness often is seen as a positive quality in athletes, and for much of sports history, athletes have been told to “shake it off” or “get back in the game” after an injury.

But in light of recent suicides of three former National Football League players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the idea of playing through the pain is being reconsidered. The seriousness of concussion and brain injury is starting to be recognized.

In fact, the NFL Players Association recently agreed to give Harvard University $100 million to study the health problems of former players. Traumatic brain injury undoubtedly will be at the top of the list for study.

It’s not just professional athletes who experience concussions or other brain injuries. Those participating in youth, high school or college sports sustain these injuries as well. And football players aren’t the only ones at risk. In an 11-year study at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., researchers found that while football had the greatest incidence of concussion, girls’ soccer had the second-highest incidence of the 12 sports studied. The study, “Trends in Concussion Incidence in High School Sports,” which appeared in the May 2011 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine, also found that sports concussion rates increased by fourfold over the study’s duration.

So what do these findings mean for sports? Does it mean revising the rules so there is no contact and no chance for injury? That would be nearly impossible, and, as mentioned in our cover story, even noncontact sports such as swimming can cause concussions.

To reduce damage from concussions, parents, coaches, healthcare providers and athletes should follow the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Heads Up: Concussion” campaign: Don’t hide it; report it; take time to recover; it’s better to miss one game than the whole season.
Those participating in sports often experience benefits such as increased physical activity, learning to work with others and a sense of camaraderie. Athletes need to be in an environment that gives them a lifetime of positive lessons rather than one that leaves them facing the effects of brain injury.

Parents, coaches and healthcare providers need to team up and draft game plans for protecting and supporting athletes. •