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Long-Term Concussion Damage More Severe Than We Thought

The risks associated with suffering even one concussion could be more severe than previously thought, with a new study suggesting long-term concussion damage can be triggered by even one head injury. This means children or teenagers who suffer one traumatic brain injury—sometimes called a TBI—could face a variety of intellectual, mental health, and physical problems throughout their life.

Concussions are common in athletes who play contact sports and are also linked to sudden, violent incidents such as car accidents. The Centers for Disease Control notes that some medical providers consider a concussion a “mild” brain injury, even though the effects of a concussion can be severe. But more studies are being released suggesting that although some side effects of concussions are temporary, there is a risk of long-term concussion damage. And that long-term damage might be experienced by patients who suffer only one traumatic brain injury.

Concussion Diagnoses on the Rise

A study conducted by Blue Cross Blue Shield suggests that the number of concussions in the U.S. diagnosed annually has increased dramatically since 2010, with the increase being even steeper for youth. According to the study, the number of concussions diagnosed overall increased 43 percent from 2010 to 2015, but the number of concussions diagnosed in youth ages 10 through 19 increased 71 percent in the same period.

Meanwhile, the percentage of patients diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome during the period increased by 81 percent.

Although there is an overall increase in the number of concussions, that increase could be linked to greater awareness about the risks associated with concussions, which might increase the likelihood that victims seek medical attention after suffering a traumatic brain injury. There are also laws—known as “Return to Play” laws—in most states requiring student-athletes who show concussion symptoms to be cleared by a doctor before returning to play, which has increased the number of diagnoses in young athletes.

Those same laws also help ensure coaches and parents are aware of and watching for concussion symptoms in young athletes, and have a better understanding of how to assist injured athletes.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Long-Term Concussion Damage

In a separate study, researchers from Sweden examined the link between a traumatic brain injury in childhood and long-term concussion damage, such as adult mortality, psychiatric morbidity, and social outcomes. Analyzing Sweden’s national registers of children born between 1973 and 1985, researchers identified approximately nine percent who suffered at least one TBI before they were 25 years old and examined their risk of a variety of medical and social outcomes. Those outcomes were then compared with the outcomes of siblings who did not suffer a TBI, to ensure the results were not linked to genetics as opposed to concussion exposure.

Researchers found TBI exposure was associated with an increased risk of early mortality, admission to a psychiatric inpatient setting, and lower educational outcomes, compared with patients with no history of TBI. Patients with one traumatic brain injury had a lower increased risk while patients who suffered more than one traumatic brain injury had more significant risks. Meanwhile, those who suffered a moderate-to-severe TBI had poorer outcomes than those who suffered a mild TBI.

“Children and adolescents who are exposed to TBI, even if the injuries appear to be relatively minor, have elevated risks to develop a wide range of medical and social problems during adulthood,” researchers wrote. “The risks are substantially elevated as a function of injury severity, recurrence, and time of injury.”

Professional Athletes at Higher Risk of Serious Brain Injuries

In particular, professional sport faces a barrage of complaints and lawsuits alleging athletes were not properly protected from an increased risk of concussions. The National Football League (NFL) is just one professional league to face lawsuits from former players who allege officials in the league knew about the risk of repeated traumatic brain injuries but failed to adequately protect players from the dangers.

In March, the NFL recognized a link between participation in football and the risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated traumatic brain injuries. A study from the Boston University CTE Center found that 94 deceased former NFL players, 90 suffered from CTE. Like the NFL, the National Hockey League also faces allegations from its players that it knew about a link between hockey and concussions and did not ensure players were either warned or properly protected.

“With 2 million kids playing football, and millions more playing other contact sports like soccer, head injuries are a long-term public-health problem,” Eric Nauman, professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, told Time Magazine.

Concussion Symptoms

Those who experience any sudden, jarring movement of the head or body and report any of the following symptoms should seek medical attention immediately:

  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Slurred Speech
  • Confusion
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Convulsions/seizures
  • Memory loss (including the inability to remember the events immediately before or after the impact)
  • Mood or personality changes
  • Sensitivity to light or noise

These symptoms often show up shortly after the injury occurs, but some can take hours or days to appear. Anyone who experiences a head injury should be checked repeatedly for signs of a concussion, even if symptoms initially appear mild.

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