A new study suggests that teenagers who suffer a concussion are at a higher risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) later in life. The study, conducted by researchers at Orebro University and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, did not find an association between traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) in younger children and MS later in life. But it adds to a growing body of research that suggests youth concussions have grave consequences for children as they age. It also adds to concerns about the risk of TBIs for young athletes.
MS Researchers Caution: Protect Teenagers from Head Injuries
Researchers analyzed the medical records of children aged 0 to 10 years and ages 11 to 20 who received hospital treatment for a concussion. The risk of developing MS as they became older adults was then examined. The study, published in the Annals of Neurology, suggests that teenagers who suffer one concussion have a 22 percent higher risk of developing MS. Teenagers who suffered two or more concussions had the risk increase dramatically—a whopping 133 percent.
One of the contributing complications is that MS is caused by genetic and environmental. Teenagers who suffer a traumatic brain injury, or multiple traumatic brain injuries, will not necessarily develop multiple sclerosis because they may not have the genetic factors. Still, those who do suffer a concussion and have the genetic factors for MS will be at a dramatically increased risk of developing the condition later in life.
“We think that concussion among adolescents can indicate the processes that cause the body’s immune system to attack the insulating layer of nerve cells which, over time, prevents them from functioning correctly,” said lead researcher Scott Montgomery.
Of importance is ensuring young athletes have as little risk as possible for a TBI. Doing so includes ensuring they wear helmets when engaged in activities that involve an increased risk of concussion.
Researchers did not find the same risk linking concussions and multiple sclerosis in younger athletes, possibly because of the speed at which children’s brains develop.
Separate Study Links Tackle Football and Behavioral Issues
Meanwhile, a separate study published in Translational Psychiatry, suggests that playing tackle football before the age of 12 is linked to an increased risk of mood and behavioral issues in adulthood. Although this study specifically did not examine the number of concussions young athletes suffered, other studies have found that young tackle football players are at risk of a high number of concussions.
Researchers found that athletes who only played football in high school had the same risk of mid-life behavioral and mood issues as those who continued to play football in college or as professionals.
Female Athletes More Likely to Play Through Concussion
Unfortunately, due to the nature of the behavioral issues study, only male athletes were included. More studies, however, are examining the risks of concussions and TBIs in females, and those studies are finding some troubling results for female athletes.
Yet another study to examine brain injuries focused on female soccer players, and found that teenage female soccer players were more likely to return to play, or practice, immediately after suffering a concussion than male players. Researchers, who presented the findings to the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that of 58 female soccer players who sustained a concussion, 30 were involved in a game or practice the same day. That’s compared with only five for 29 male athletes who also suffered a concussion.
“I think the big barrier that we’re going to have to overcome is the culture of athletes themselves wanting to push through injuries,” said Dr. Shane Miller, one of the study’s co-presenters.
Of major concern is a previous study that suggests girls soccer players suffer the highest rate of concussions compared with all sports.
Why females tend to play through their injuries where males do not is not clear. By returning to play too soon, however, female athletes are at risk of sustaining serious, long-term brain damage.
Females Experience Brain Injuries Differently
A final study on concussions in athletes will examine why females and males experience concussions differently. Much research on concussions has focused on the male experience. New research, however, suggests that female athletes have different reactions in their neck muscles than males, take longer to recover from brain injuries, and are more likely to disclose concussion symptoms including headaches and depression.
These four studies add to the growing body of research that suggests that young athletes who are exposed to an increased risk of brain injuries, including concussions, could suffer long-term repercussions of those traumatic brain injuries. They also highlight the importance of ensuring proper measures are taken to prevent children and teenagers from suffering preventable concussions.