Serious Effects of Mild Concussions

Concussions are traumatic head injuries that occur from both mild and severe blows to the head. Some head injuries may appear to be mild, but research is finding that concussions can have serious, long-term effects. Repeat head injuries or cumulative concussions can have long-term implications.

Studies on the cumulative effects of concussions in high school athletes have shown that even mild concussions can result in serious long-term problems, particularly if an athlete is allowed to return to play too early, or has a history of concussions or other head injuries.

Soccer/futbol player attended to on the field by first aid

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Symptoms of Concussions in High School Athletes Studied

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh's Sports Medicine Center have been studying male and female high school athletes who have sustained concussions during sporting events. A concussion is typically caused by a severe head trauma where the brain moves violently within the skull so that brain cells all fire at once, much like a seizure. Signs of mild concussion include confusion, disorientation, and memory loss. Because these symptoms may not be reported by the athlete or may disappear within a few minutes, players are often allowed to continue playing or return to a game before their brain has had adequate time to heal.​

Returning to Play Increases Chance of a Serious Brain Injury

According to researcher Mark Lowell, allowing an athlete to return to play too early increases their chance of more serious brain injury. Given that concussions are sustained each season by more than 10 percent of high school athletes, determining when it is safe for these athletes to return to play is an important objective.

To that end, researchers at the University developed a computer program called the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing system, or ImPACT, which measures an athlete's memory, reaction time and processing speed. The program is used to establish a player's baseline conditions at the start of a season and is then subsequently implemented if the player sustains a mild concussion. The results of the testing provide coaches and trainers with a more objective measure of whether the athlete is healthy enough to return to play. The ImPACT program is currently being used at high schools and colleges throughout the nation, as well as by the National Football League and National Hockey League.

Long-Term Effects of Concussions in Sports

The research conducted by the University has also demonstrated that a history of concussion can cause long-term memory loss and other problems. According to Dr. Michael Collins, "the study indicates for the first time in the high school athlete population that prior concussions may indeed lower the threshold for subsequent concussion injury and increase symptom severity in even seemingly mild subsequent concussions." Researchers found that athletes with three or more concussions were nine times more likely to suffer more severe concussion symptoms (e.g., loss of consciousness and memory) than players with no prior history of concussion.

Further studies showed prolonged effects on student-athletes after a concussion. One study found significantly worse measures of attention and concentration not just for students with a recent concussion, but also for those who had no current symptoms but had a history of two or more concussions. They also had a significantly lower grade point average.

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