Balancing the Concussion Hype

Looking at both sides of the sensationalism

Over the past few years, the media has kept concussions, particularly with respect to football, in the headlines – some would argue ad nauseum. But the truth is, the press attention and research into causes, long-term effects and prevention is provoking both good and bad outcomes.

The best outcome is the awareness being brought to the general public about diagnosis, second-impact syndrome, removal, and return-to-play policies. Players who have been clocked are no longer being told to “just suck it up.” There are now concussion laws on the books in all 50 states and the District of Columbia and required concussion training for youth coaches and athletic trainers.

However, there is definitely a downside to the hysteria, according to Rance A. Boren, a Texas neurologist. “The notion that everyone who plays football going to be mentally unstable in 15 years is just not true,” he said.

Boren points out that the majority of sports concussion research has focused on professional and college level athletes, not high school athletes. This generally points to the number of hits a player sustains over a period of time, as opposed to the force of a few hits. A player with a decade-long professional career preceded by four years of college ball who likely also played youth football is an example of someone at risk for the long-term injuries frequently seen in the media. The kid who started playing football at 12 and stopped after three or four years of high school ball is hardly ever in that risk category.

It’s important to understand that CTE is not a risk associated with young football athletes –  only a small fraction of NFL and college players exhibit its effects.  CTE is not caused by a single or even multiple concussions that have been properly treated. The word chronic in CTE means the trauma resulted from multiple sub-concussive brain injuries sustained over a long period of time. CTE is usually something boxers or NFL linemen might experience after sustaining thousands of blows to the head over the course of their careers.

However, second-impact syndrome and unreported concussions resulting in subsequent injuries are more common at the high school level. Susceptibility to second-impact syndrome is biological. Boren explains that “metabolic buffering syntheses” haven’t been able to reset. So if you are hit again during that short period between an initial hit and recovery, then you are going to do more damage. If you are then hit again, then you do even more damage.”

It’s for this reason that the University Interscholastic League instituted a 10-day return-to-play rule. The 10-day period begins after all symptoms of concussion have subsided. Returning to play too soon can affect reaction time and  vision, which leaves players vulnerable to other injuries.

We invite you to read our many articles on concussions and concussions relating to football.

Source: Travis M. Smith, “Concussions: A headache of a problem,” 23 June, 2015.