Concussions are the most common type of injury among athletes competing in contact sports as well as the most common type of traumatic brain injuries overall.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, a concussion is defined as a mild traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, jolt, or blow to the head. This movement causes the brain to be shaken around or to become twisted inside the skull.
“I’ve had two concussions, and I do still struggle with long term effects. I still have vision problems and struggle with vestibular, otherwise known as balance issues,” senior Sydney Allendorf said.
These actions lead to the stretching and damaging of brain cells which cause chemical changes in the brain making it more difficult for cells to function and communicate.
A concussion is a “functional” brain injury, which means injury affects how the brain works, but the damage is only temporary and they can resolve on their own within one to six weeks without medical attention.
The Center of Disease and Control estimates as many as 3.8 million concussions occur in the U.S. annually through sports, but only 5-10% are recognized and diagnosed by coaches, parents and athletic trainers. Physical symptoms of a concussion can consist of headaches, blurry vision, nausea, vomiting, dizziness balance problems and sensitivity to noise or light.
Symptoms of concussions can be dangerous, such as seizures, not recognizing people or places, and unusual behavior. According to the Cleveland Clinic, adolescents are at a higher risk of seizures because of their developing brains. Most concussions can happen while on the playground, bike riding, or when playing sports such as football, basketball, or soccer. Before an athlete can return to play, he or she must be totally symptom-free and return to their pre-concussion scores.
“After my first concussion I had vestibular therapy for 6 months, visits with sports medicine for over a year and regular visits with a neurologist. My second one, I went to eye therapy as well as vestibular therapy for six months. My first concussion took me over a year to recover to 90% and be able to return to soccer. My second concussion took me four months to recover but I had to give up the game,” Allendorf said.
According to The Center of Disease and Control, once the athlete has returned, he or she begins a five-day program in which they increases activities while any symptoms are monitored. Once a person has a concussion, they are at a three to five times greater risk for a later concussions. One in five high school athletes will sustain a sports concussion during the season with 33% of all sports concussions occurring at practice, according to headcasecompany.com.
There are several long term effects of multiple concussions and not allowing a person’s brain to fully heal. Post-Concussion Syndrome is when patients who suffer a concussion take longer than usual to recover, which is found in between 10% – 30% of concussion patients. Second Impact Syndrome is when a second concussion occurs during, recovery which causes the brain to undergo swelling. Approximately half of all Second Impact Syndrome patients die from their injuries, and the survivors often suffer from lifelong irreversible disability.
The most well known long term effect of multiple concussions is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a progressive disease that has symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s. CTE was first discovered by neuropathologist Dr Bennet Omalu in the brain of Mike Webster, a former NFL player. When Omalu looked at Webster’s brain tissue under the microscope he observed concentrations of tau which is a protein.
“Having a concussion was a difficult experience for me because for two weeks I had to sit in the dark. I was not allowed to play on my phone, do homework for long periods of time or even watch TV. My head felt like it was gonna explode and I could feel my brain move when I took the blow. I felt like the whole world was spinning and all sounds immediately got extremely loud,” Allendorf said.
The 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, is the story of Dr.Omalu who challenges the NFL on the repeated hits to the brain from playing football can cause brain damage. As neurons die, large areas of brain tissue become affected, causing symptoms to appear including: memory loss, confusion, Parkinson’s-like tremors, walking problems, impaired judgement, depression and personality changes.
Repeated head trauma does not always lead to CTE and the only way to diagnose CTE is post-mortem by an autopsy. CTE has been found in the brains of 76 out of 79 former NFL players who have donated their brains to research. According to the Concussion Foundation, repeated concussion have been linked to increased risk of neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as CTE.
“My advice is to genuinely listen to what your body is telling you. If you don’t feel like your ready to go back to everyday life yet that is okay. At the end of the day you will feel a lot better if you don’t rush the natural healing process,” Allendorf said.